The Government has announced a new action plan to control one of Britain's most loveable pests - the Grey Squirrel.
Focusing on areas where the grey is damaging woodland and preventing red squirrels from becoming established, the plan will almost certainly mean a cull of Grey Squirrels in some areas.
Commenting on the initiative, Jim Knight, the Minister for Biodiversity, said; "Many people love Grey Squirrels, but the reality is that they are a real problem for some of our most threatened native species, like the Red Squirrel and Dormouse. It is not realistic, practical or even desirable to completely eradicate Grey Squirrels - but we must control them effectively now or there will be serious consequences".
The Red Squirrel:
Now outnumbered 66:1 by its Grey cousin
The Grey Squirrel was introduced into Britain from North America in the 19th century and has spread widely, with a population now estimated at over 2 million. They are regarded as pests by a number of groups because of the damage they cause to woodland.
The grey is largely responsible for the decline of the Red Squirrel in England and now outnumbers its native cousin 66 to 1. Because they are stronger and more adaptable, the grey can easily encroach upon Red Squirrel territory and push the weaker animal out. Grey Squirrels also carry the Squirrelpox virus, which, although harmless to the grey, is lethal to Red Squirrels.
Despite calls for their eradication from some quarters, Defra and the Forestry Commission believe this is neither feasible nor desirable. Although Grey Squirrels are non-native, over the last century they have established themselves across the country and for many people are a visible sign of the country's thriving wildlife.
The action plan and the policy behind it have been developed jointly by Defra and the Forestry Commission, following consultation with representatives of countryside groups, woodland and forestry interests and animal welfare and conservation groups.
Through the plan, the Forestry Commission is aiming to:
- Support and encourage the effective and humane control of Grey Squirrels, focussing resources on areas of critical threat to the management of woodland, and public benefits.
- Fund, in partnership with others, research into methods of control and forestry techniques that offer effective damage control and management
- Continue to monitor and evaluate the damage caused by Grey Squirrels and the threat they pose to sustainable woodland management
- Raise awareness of the need for targeted Grey Squirrel control
Action to protect the red squirrel is already underway in some areas. Red Alert North England is a partnership, including organisations such as the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and regional Wildlife Trusts, which is focused on protecting and expanding Red Squirrel populations. The initiative involves buffer zones around the sites of colonies, one of which is located in upper Wensleydale, to prevent the incursion of Grey Squirrels.
Damage caused by a Grey Squirrel
Mr Knight said; "we have seen in projects such as Red Alert North England, how active intervention, control and protection can ensure the safety and expansion of the Red Squirrel. That commitment from local landowners and other concerned people is fundamental to the long-term survival of the red squirrel and the targeted control of Grey Squirrel damage".
Lord Clark, Chairman of the Forestry Commission, added; "the role of the Forestry Commission is fundamentally to protect woodlands and increase their value to society and the environment. This policy creates the right balance between protecting native species of woodland and wildlife, with allowing the controlled presence of non-native species. It gives the Forestry Commission a clear mandate for delivering this, and supports our work in preserving native species of woodlands and wildlife…".
Copies of the Policy and Action Statement can be viewed on the Forestry Commission website at www.forestry.gov.uk/greysquirrel.