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Could Mull become the Noah’s Ark for the Red Squirrel?

The recent discovery of pox virus in grey squirrels in the Scottish Borders is bad news for Scotland’s remaining red squirrel population. Red squirrels once occupied most of the lowland woods in the UK but today, the only remaining populations of any consequence are in northern England and Scotland.

The larger American grey squirrel was first introduced into England in 1876 with tragic consequences for our native red squirrel. The foreigner quickly made itself at home and spread across the country, displacing the red squirrel as it went. Grey squirrels displace the red squirrel through food competition and by upsetting the delicate social system of the red, the red breeding success declines and the greys take over the territories. But displacement takes place 17 times faster when grey squirrels carry pox virus, benign to greys but fatal to reds. The greys advance through northern England and Scotland is unstoppable and the reds could be extinct in 25 years.

So what has this to do with Mull?

Mull is an island which greys cannot reach. It might therefore be a secure refuge for the Scottish red squirrel. A recent survey of Mull habitats has confirmed that it would be possible to establish a pilot population on Mull. With care and co-operation of woodland owners, red squirrels on Mull could in time become self sustaining.

Scottish Natural Heritage does not presently favour such an introduction on the grounds that red squirrel are not native to Mull. (But then the greys aren’t native to Britain). So as greys advance, the proposal for Mull to become a refuge for reds may warrant more serious consideration.