WHILE many people are worried about the decline of red squirrels in the North East, a father and son team calling themselves Professor Acorn is championing their grey cousins’ cause and have even produced their own merchandise supporting the maligned intruder.
A lot has been written on the subject of the decline of red squirrels in the region, seen as the final stronghold of the reds, and many stories in The Journal have garnered support for the native reds.
But the stories have also attracted the attention of Neil and Angus MacMillan, who say they would not mind if greys took over completely and wiped out the reds.
The pair, who live just over the border in Scotland, work from their ‘Professor Acorn’ website and are worried about how the North East is dealing with its squirrel dilemma. They want to re-educate people in Northumberland about the greys, which they feel are unfairly treated and should be supported and fed.
To help their case, they also sell T-shirts, scarves, umbrellas, lanyards and record bags, each emblazoned with the website’s address.
The North East is seen as one of the last remaining strongholds of the red squirrel but even here there are fears that the greys are making inroads. Save Our Squirrels call on the public to do regular squirrel spotting surveys. In October £40,000 was made available for trapping-based surveys.
Also, between February 2007 and September last year more than 20,000 greys were killed by the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, chaired by Lord Redesdale. Lord Redesdale actually declared in the summer that he aimed to make Northumberland grey-free by 2011.
But studies say that sightings of greys in the North East have increased rather than decreased, suggesting that the culling of greys has not stopped their advance in what is the final English stronghold of the red squirrel.
Now Professor Acorn is keen to let people know that grey squirrels are not an evil, destructive force responsible for the decline of the reds, but have been the subject of a PR campaign which has made them out as the bad guys in the battle of the colours.
They believe loss of coniferous habitat, coupled with the reds’ own lack of immunity to the squirrel pox virus, is to blame for their decline rather than the malice of the greys.
Neil said: “The North East of England has been the target area for conservation groups. They’re culling the greys but whether there’s any effect on the fate of the red squirrels is questionable. They themselves say that the culling is not working. It seems that a number of conservation groups that have a nativeness obsession can’t get it all together.”
They say culling actually increases the population by creating a population vacuum and greys will come in from other areas to breed and make the most of the food available. This migration will also increase the risk of spreading the dreaded squirrel pox virus.
Professor Acorn not only feels that conservation groups are doing the wrong thing by culling, but are also approaching their support of the reds in the wrong way too.
For instance, planting deciduous trees instead of coniferous is giving the reds the wrong sort of habitat, and organising red squirrel tours is scaring the shy reds into hiding.
The pair say they have nothing against reds and want to see both colours do well, but Neil believes we are also being over-sentimental as the reds are not some kind of native British species. They say they are genetically exactly the same as the reds found in Europe and China, where their numbers are healthier and the climate is better suited to them unlike in Britain.
Neil, who along with his dad comes from a science and animal welfare background, said: “Greys wiping out reds – if it happens it happens. They are not native just to England so they won’t be wiped out. The conservationists have tried to make ours a controversial viewpoint by saying that we hate the reds. It’s not that – we love all squirrels. We’ve shown via our website that we genuinely what to support reds but not at the expense of greys.
“I think greys shouldn’t be persecuted and blamed for things that aren’t their fault. Human beings shouldn’t be shooting one species to protect another.”
Many groups in the North East such as the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership and the Red Squirrel Survival Trust have fought hard to protect the reds from what they see as the ever increasing grey tide. But despite all the negative press surrounding greys, Neil does not feel that the public has bought it wholesale.
He said: “I’ve never heard of anyone saying reds are bad but I reckon the majority think all squirrels are good.
“I’m not convinced people see it in that way [that greys are nasty]. It’s more because of media coverage. People’s faces when a grey squirrel takes a nut from them – you can’t credit the enjoyment people get from that.”