Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Red and Gray Squirrels in Scotland, A Moral Dilemma

I posted a poll on the right side of this page. The reason for the poll is an article that I read this morning from the Scotsman. As the article points out, most of the last surviving red squirrels in Great Britain are in Scotland. The species has been devastated since the introduction, around a century ago, of eastern gray squirrels from North America. Not only are the gray squirrels larger, out-competing the red squirrels for food and habitat, but the grays also carry a disease called squirrel pox that, while harmless to the gray squirrels, is deadly to red squirrels.

This article discusses a measure to attempt to save red squirrels in Scotland that I consider a huge moral dilemma: trapping and killing of thousands of gray squirrels, to try to eradicate them from areas to which the red squirrel is native.

My initial reaction is to be horrified at this measure. After all, the gray squirrels did not ask to be taken to Great Britain, or to be carriers of a disease. I feel pretty sure that no gray squirrel has ever deliberately harmed a red squirrel. The fact that I have a gray squirrel companion that I see, pet, and play with every day makes me biased, of course, but I think the very idea of wastefully killing thousands of individuals of any species would bother me.

On the other hand, I have to consider the plight of the red squirrels. While still plentiful in other parts of Europe, the species is seriously endangered in Great Britain. The suffering of these squirrels from squirrel pox must be truly terrible. And I can understand the feelings of English and Scottish residents who have watched the decline of one of their native species. I can't imagine how terrible it would be to watch the eastern gray squirrel, so plentiful in my part of the world, decline and die out.

Please take the poll on this blog. It simply asks the question, do you think the killing of gray squirrels in Scotland is justified, to save the red squirrel population? And please also leave a comment on this post if you want to. This is certainly not the only case in which an invasive species has caused the decline of a native species, and it is an issue that has always troubled me... how far should humans be able to go to manipulate the environment, and is the killing of one species to save another permissible?


  1. This is indeed a tough one, especially because - as you point out - the grays (or the "greys," as they say in the UK) never asked to come there, and it is troublesome to fault animals for doing their best to survive. In this case, their survival is not compatible with the survival of the native reds who are much-beloved. I wish there were easy answers. The ones I am reading about, the so-called "solutions" trouble me as much as they trouble you. We can only hope someone cleverer than the current folks in charge over there, come up with some answers.

  2. Just one more thought. Sadly, I recall writing on this very same subject more than two years ago. (The link is http://greyandred.blogspot.com/2009/06/when-fear-spreads-like-pox.html)
    How unfortunate, how VERY unfortunate, that little has changed and squirrels have been "culled" in the interim.

  3. Thank you, Squirrelmama, for your thoughtful comments, and for the link to your own post on this subject. This really is a question with no easy answers.