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Rescuing the Red Squirrel

British launch campaign to save their native, tufted-eared species

The call is going out: Save the red squirrel. And Britain is responding.

An estimated 18 million television viewers, newspaper readers, and Internet surfers are being invited to take part in a nationwide campaign aimed at rescuing from extinction one of the country's best-loved - yet most threatened - indigenous creatures.

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Sciurus vulgaris, on which the children's author Beatrix Potter based her squirrel character Nutkin, is in danger of being wiped out by an American cousin.

The bigger, stronger (but arguably less appealing) gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, introduced to Britain from the United States a century ago, has been steadily pushing the red variety from its feeding and breeding grounds.

The current phase of the rescue effort involves people all over Britain taking part in a squirrel census that scientists will use as the basis for mounting a fight-back by the beleaguered species.

Lynne Collins, United Kingdom coordinator for the Red Squirrel Conservation Partnership estimates that the number of grays now exceeds 2.5 million, compared with a mere 160,000 reds. While the grays can now be found throughout England and Wales and in southern Scotland, the red has retreated northward.

The little chaps with chestnut-red coats and tufted ears can be found only in tiny patches of English woodland. In Scotland, the untufted gray squirrel is steadily encroaching on the red's remaining territory.

"If the decline continues," Ms. Collins says, "the red will be extinct within two decades."

Public helps with survey

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Red Alert, the name given to the squirrel census, aims to discover where the remaining red squirrels are. The project is using the resources of the London Daily Telegraph newspaper, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the Internet to encourage the public to fill in forms indicating where# they have observed red or gray squirrels and in what kind of habitat.

Once the statistics are in, conservation teams in places as far apart as England's Lake District, Wales, and parts of Scotland will set about reintroducing red squirrels into what are deemed suitable woodlands.

Choosing the right type of habitat is vital, the scientists say.

Keith Merrin of the Wildlife Trust says grays prosper because they are more adventurous in competing for food and habitat. "The broad-leaved woods in much of England favor grays, while reds prefer the seeds of conifer trees," Mr. Merrin says. "Wherever reds remain, there tend to be plenty of conifers."

But it seems red squirrels are even fussy about the kinds of nuts they will eat. Research by the London Zoological Society (LZS) suggests that trees such as the Scotch pine produce large seeds shed from cones throughout the year, providing plenty of food for squirrels. But the faster-growing Sitka spruce produces small se#eds shed only in the autumn. In such a habitat, the society says, grays will always win out over reds in the battle for scarce food. Hard-pressed gray squirrels will even eat acorns; reds turn up their noses at them.

The LZS research has prompted Britain's Forestry Commission to restructure 12,000 acres of forest in Cumbria, replacing Sitka with Scotch pine and Norwegian spruce so that red squirrels can feed throughout the year.

While results of the Red Alert census are awaited, moves are going ahead to reintroduce red squirrels in some areas. Scientists at the Mountain Zoo near Colwyn Bay in Wales are preparing to release into the wild red squirrels bred in captivity. The red squirrels will be fitted with small radio collars, to enable researchers to track their movements.

Another line of approach is to try to control the breeding habits of gray squirrels. Trapping and shooting grays is allowed under British law, but the laying of poisoned food is prohibited because of the risk of killing reds. To get around #this problem, the Forestry Commission has begun experimenting with special feeding hoppers.

Gray squirrels targeted

The devices exploit the fact that a fully grown gray squirrel, weighing in at about one and a half pounds, is roughly twice as heavy as a red squirrel. In one type of hopper, a trap-door opens under the greater weight of the gray, but allows the lighter red to reach the food. In another type, a specially weighted door allows the stronger gray to reach bait laced with a contraceptive vaccine that causes i#nfertility. The weaker red is unable to shoulder its way through the door.

There has been little enthusiasm for a suggestion last year by the Duke of Buccleuch, a Scottish aristocrat, that as part of the plan to save the red squirrel, gray squirrels should be roasted or casseroled.

Collins says Red Alert is "a vital element in a long-term program of red squirrel conservation," and is confident that Sciurus vulgaris will have a good 21st century.

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