Pine marten could be the unlikely hero set to save Cumbria’s red squirrel population

We have all spent time in a park growing up fascinated by the squirrels running round.

And it’s long been known that numbers of native red squirrels are rapidly in decline after being overtaken by grey squirrels, introduced to the country in the 1800s.

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But, now researchers and conservationists are hoping that the recolonisation of pine martens will help boost the numbers of Red Squirrels in Cumbria.

Research has shown that pine martens can help in the conservation of red squirrels – by reversing the spread of invasive grey squirrel populations.

The study suggested that pine martens may be responsible for the decline of grey squirrels in Ireland, and confirms that the relationship between red and grey squirrels in the UK is clearly altered in the presence of a native predator.

Since the 1800s when the common grey first arrived from Northern America they escaped and established a wild population

Native red squirrels is now limited to certain areas of the UK, such as Anglesey, parts of northern England and Scotland.

In many cases they have retreated to wilder, remote locations.

Unfortunately, without conservation management, red squirrels could become extinct in England in about 10 years.

To preserve red squirrels, they must be kept apart from grey squirrels as the two species cannot live together long term.

The pine marten could be the unlikely saviour of the red squirrel
(Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The greys carry pox which is deadly to the reds but research has shown that the reintroduction of pine martens has, in other areas, helped reduce the grey squirrel population.

Cain Scrimgeour, a wildlife media lecturer at the university of Cumbria said: “Some studies have shown that the introduction of pine martens have helped reduce the population of grey squirrels by up to 50 percent.

“The reds have adapted to our environment over thousands of years and are much smaller then the greys meaning they spend much more time up the trees and away from pine martens.

“The Red squirrels fit into our ecological niche but they have had a troubled past.

“Beatrix Potter helped a lot with her character Nutkin.

“Greys have just not evolved here and struggle to escape the pine martens they live in fear and spend a lot more time on the ground which puts them at risk.”

An elusive mustelid, the pine marten is mostly found in the north of the UK. It prefers woodland habitats, climbing very well and living in tree holes, old squirrel dreys or even old bird nests. It feeds on small rodents, birds, eggs, insects and fruit, and can even be encouraged to visit birdtables laden with peanuts and raisins.

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