Good news on wildlife is scarce these days, and so to learn about the survival and recovery of the red squirrel population in the UK is heartening. It is more than just about red squirrels, however, – the scientific conclusions have implications for all of nature.
There has been concern for many years about the threat to the native red squirrel from the non-native but prolific grey squirrel which took over the habitats and food supplies of their smaller, gentler brothers. Not only did they drive the red squirrels away, they transmitted to them also a pox that was harmless to the grey squirrels but deadly to the reds, and so these much loved creatures saw a dramatic decline in number to such a degree that special conservation areas were set up to prevent their extinction. They have been successful on the whole, but the scheme depended upon the removal of all grey squirrels from the locations identified, as far as possible. Contact between the squirrels could not be prevented everywhere, and five years ago it was discovered that the pox had spread and killed 80% of the already small population of red squirrels.
Scientific monitoring continued, and it is wonderful to learn that there is clear evidence that red squirrels at the Formby Nature Reserve have developed a resistance to the pox, living healthily in the woods despite exposure to what before would have been unsurvivable. The news comes as the latest example of how nature adapts to external threats: viruses, predators, weather changes, climate change and loss of habitat all have placed great strain on many species; some of these factors the wildlife can do nothing about, but it is remarkable how, for example, certain butterflies have adapted to new conditions within a few generations, and how birds have altered their migration patterns quite markedly to allow for warmer, wetter seasons.
Nature is resilient and nature wants to survive. Just as man has adapted to changing worlds over millennia, so too have the plants and creatures of the planet, and they will continue so to do – if we do not get in their way. It would be so sad if, despite the efforts of nature, it was the human race that brought about the end of those lives which make our planet so beautiful, and which support us so well. Certain people put their own survival above anything else, not seeing that, ultimately, they cannot live without the infrastructure of a thriving, healthy, balanced environment. How ironic it would be to precipitate the demise of what is best in our world, only to find we have destroyed ourselves as well. It need not happen, and perhaps the good news story about our red squirrels will encourage greater awareness of what is so important, for us all.