Paxton House aiming to bring back red squirrels

John Home Robertson in the squirrel hide at Paxton House.
John Home Robertson in the squirrel hide at Paxton House.

A LOCAL wildlife expert is confident red squirrels will make a return to Paxton House after they were wiped out by a deadly virus.

Karen Ramoo of Red Squirrels in South Scotland is “certain” the population will recover, while Paxton House director Claire McDade is ready to devise an action plan to bring them back.

Squirrelpox has wiped out reds at Paxton House

Squirrelpox has wiped out reds at Paxton House

In the same week the Scottish Government announced an extension of a project to safeguard reds nationwide, Paxton House is beginning its new season without the red squirrels, who both staff and visitors have taken to their hearts.

The reds on the 80-acre Paxton estate were killed off in a matter of weeks by the only known recent outbreak of squirrel pox in the south of Scotland. Grey squirrels carry the disease which causes infected creatures to starve to death and its rapid spread has been a big blow to everyone at Paxton, but Karen Ramoo of Red Squirrels in South Scotland – a scheme set up to contain the threat from deadly squirrel pox disease in the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway – hopes visitors will not become despondent about the predicament, adding that the public could do their bit to help matters.

“In terms of Paxton House I think it is incredibly important that the public and indeed the estate staff do not become disheartened by the current red squirrel pox outbreak,” she said.

“To date estates both along and north of the River Tweed have been conducting intensive grey squirrel control and numbers do appear reduced. It also appears that the efforts of these estates have so far prevented the squirrelpox virus from spreading to red squirrels beyond the estate.

“It is not unexpected for the red squirrel population to crash as the disease takes hold, but with low numbers of grey squirrels present to spread the virus it is certain the population will recover.

“We need the help of the public to stop this disease from spreading and we urge people in the area to stop feeding red squirrels at feeders in their gardens for the time being. We know that seeing reds at feeders gives people an enormous amount of pleasure but feeders are a focal point for squirrel to squirrel disease transmission.

“Apart from Paxton House, there have been no other outbreaks of squirrelpox virus detected this year. This success is due to the combined efforts of the public, private and voluntary sectors in southern Scotland who are working together under the RSSS project.”

Staff at Paxton House have run a number of culling campaigns against grey squirrels, doing everything in their power to protect reds. Supplementary food has been supplied for reds to help them during the winter months and youngsters have also taken a keen interest in the popular animals. Back in 1996 a group of young enthusiasts helped plant 400 Scottish pines to help restore the squirrels’ natural habitat.

No-one is more upset about the vanishing of Paxton House’s contingent of red squirrels than John Home Robertson, the former Labour MP and MSP who lived in the mansion until 1988. He found the body of a red squirrel on a woodland path on Christmas Day, a discovery which hit him very hard.

“These are lovely little creatures which have been here forever,” said John. “It was great to be able to share them with other people. It was an absolute joy. Then they were suddenly wiped out overnight.”

Like others involved with Paxton House, John is distressed at just how much of an impact the greys have had and feels that more needs to be done to safeguard red squirrels. Today, there are between 200,000 and 300,000 grey squirrels in Scotland and only around 121,000 red squirrels.

“If this is a war, the reds are losing,” he continued. “If we just go on the way we are now then they are doomed. This tragedy in this corner of rural Berwickshire should be a warning for the whole of Scotland. What has happened over a few short weeks at Paxton could be repeated all too rapidly all over Scotland.

“I make this heartfelt plea to government and other agencies to prioritise that research. What’s the good of using scarce cash and skills to introduce beavers, sea eagles and even giant pandas to Scotland if we can’t save an iconic native Scottish mammal from extinction?”

All that’s left of Paxton’s red population now are the squirrel hides that were lovingly crafted by locals and frequented by many, including noted Berwickshire photographer Laurie Campbell.

Ms McDade, who has been Paxton House director for just over a year, said: “It’s really, really sad what’s happened. The red squirrels were a big part of the attraction of Paxton House and people would visit regularly to see them.

“We’ve always been aware of the greys and the danger they pose to the reds – they have a particularly large population in Scotland. Our next step is to devise a plan of action to see if there’s any way of bringing them back. We’ve been working closely with Red Squirrels in South Scotland and are in the process of putting together our own Wildlife Advisory Group.

“As well as working hard on the interior of Paxton House we are keen to conserve the amazing wildlife we are blessed with here including the badgers, otters and salmon but the reds were very much at the top of the list in terms of what people love.”

Last week, environment and climate change minister Stewart Stevenson announced that the three-year Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) project, focusing on protecting red squirrel populations in the Highlands, Argyll, north-east Scotland and northern Tayside, was to run for another two years.

This will be phase two of the scheme and will now also include the work being carried out in the Borders by the Red Squirrels in South Scotland project.

Mr Stevenson said: “Red squirrels are one of Scotland’s most recognisable animals. In the three years since SSRS was formed, and together with the work being undertaken by Red Squirrels in South Scotland, we have seen some positive results as we work to halt the decline of the red squirrel numbers – in some regions, numbers are actually increasing. This announcement will ensure that this vital work can continue.”