The beautiful truth behind Ireland’s red squirrel comeback

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Over the past few days, a number of people have drawn my attention to a recent Guardian article by George Monbiot, the leading figure in Britain’s “rewilding” movement who coined the phrase “ecological boredom” in describing the modern-day, urban condition. The article deals with the Rocky-like comeback of red squirrels in Ireland, where invasive North American grey squirrel populations are retracting, making room for their once-plentiful red cousins they previously displaced. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be using the word “invasive”, considering that the grey squirrel was introduced to the British Isles in the 1870s. With an average life span of 4 to 6 years, this makes the feisty rodents that currently Rule Britannia 28th-generation immigrants, at which point the non-UKIP voting part of the population should probably start viewing them as native. But that’s another discussion altogether.

Now before I continue, I’d like to mention that, having grown up in Germany, red squirrels are a common sight to me. While there are reports of grey squirrels slowly making their way into central Europe, life is still good for our continental red friends at the moment, and they can often and easily be seen in parks, gardens and woodlands, seemingly unaware of the approaching army of evildoers. Hence, I don’t get quite as excited about them as Britons do, who flock to the few remaining red squirrel strongholds like Brownsea Island or the Isle of Wight in the hope of spotting the rare and elusive creature. However, Monbiot’s article made me very happy because of what it says about the value of healthy, self-regulating ecosystems versus human-dominated landscapes. The reason red squirrels have been able to reclaim large parts of Ireland is as simple as it is beautiful: Pine martens, one of the few predatory mammals still to be found in the British Isles, have been recolonizing the island as a result of increased protection and a decrease in hunting activity. Coincidentally, they also happen to heavily prey upon grey squirrels, catching the rodents, who did not naturally co-evolve with their new enemy, suddenly off-guard. This seems to be the one area in which red squirrels have a competitive advantage over the grey intruders, as they are able to escape to the end of tree branches where martens cannot go.

This is a crucial learning at a time when the UK government plans to spend millions of pounds on a large-scale grey squirrel cull, a plan that has been deemed unfeasible by scientists and unethical by animal welfare charities. If the return of a native carnivore can help achieve what human intervention cannot, the implication is obvious: The eradication of carnivores  has left the British Isles with imbalanced, or “depleted” (Monbiot’s words), ecosystems, where species like grey squirrels, sika or roe deer are living an unnatural, predator-free existence. In an ecologically bereft space, otherwise preyed-upon species suddenly turn into “pests”, and short-sighted, reactionary policies that aim at the symptom rather than the root cause of this problem turn into seemingly obvious solutions. Allowing predators to coexist with us and to reclaim their natural place would solve not only the squirrel problem, but also make this country a much wilder, ecologically exciting place.

It should come to no surprise to anyone that I have always been in favour of reintroducing carnivores to the UK, and had many a heated discussion over this issue. While I accept that bringing back wolves is currently made unfeasible by certain special interest groups, for the love of squirrels, let’s start with the pine marten.

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