An audience of 35 local people enjoyed an entertaining and educational scientific supper on Tuesday 21 November where guest speaker, Professor Andy White of Heriot-Watt University, described his research on the conservation of the red squirrel population in Scotland. Attendees heard how the red squirrel had been native to the UK since the Ice Age, that had the word “orange” been popular years ago then we would now speak of the “orange” squirrel and how our Victorian ancestors caused a problem for the reds by introducing grey squirrels into the wild about a century ago. The larger grey squirrel is able to compete for food more successfully than the red. However, the more important issue is that a disease, squirrelpox, carried by the grey but deadly to the red had led to extinction across most parts of England and Wales for the red squirrel population. The only safe havens for the red in England are on islands like Brownsee and in a protected colonies like Formby near Liverpool. One real success story is on the island of Anglesey where the grey squirrel population had been eradicated and the reds are again on the increase. As for Scotland the reds retain their foothold in parts of the mainland due to the different tree mix, the difficulty the disease has in propagating across a more rugged landscape and, interestingly, the re-appearance of the pine martin. The intervention of the pine martin is not properly understood but may be due to the reds ability to avoid the predator and/or, just possibly, the fact that the grey is larger and may even be tastier.Andy was able to give some optimism to the retention of the reds in Scotland due to the hard work of the conservationists. For example, the reds can now be seen in places along the Tweed valley near Peebles and Glentress. He didn’t see how the red squirrel could make a re-appearance in urban areas like Edinburgh though there was hope that Aberdeenshire could see a resurgence of the red squirrel population.Although this lay audience did not see a single mathematical equation during the talk it was clear that Andy had the confidence of his mathematical model behind his explanation of a complex problem. He ended on his note of optimism though stressed the need for the conservationists to continue their work. He also noted that the general public can play a role by reporting to the “Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels” website any sightings they have of red or grey squirrels.
Pentlands Book Festival 2016 21-27 November
Events in Juniper green, Colinton and Currie