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Government Urged To Boost Support For Killing "Menace" Grey Squirrels

Grey squirrels are regarded as invasive pests in the UK (Alamy)

5 min read

A group of Tory MPs are calling on the government to increase the grants provided to landowners to trap and cull grey squirrels, and further support other methods of squirrel population control to protect the "precious" native red squirrel.

Conservative MPs Virginia Crosbie and Andrew Selous, who are members of the Conservative Environment Network (CEN), have called on the government to take "bold" action to reduce grey squirrel populations across the UK. 

Crosbie, who is MP for Ynys Môn – which includes the Isles of Anglesey where there is a sizeable red squirrel population – said the government should provide further support for people to trap and cull greys.

"It is only right that we do everything we can to protect native species in the UK. This means controlling and reducing the menace grey squirrel population to allow red squirrels to thrive," she said.

"As an Honorary Member of the Red Squirrel Trust Wales, I have met with experts here in Wales to understand what is needed. Fortunately, the government has taken some action already with the creation of the multi-million pound Species Survival Fund. 

"But, we can go further to control grey squirrels in a humane way. The government should be bold with its plans, supporting the qualified people we will require to trap and shoot them and giving sufficient support for other methods of control, such as contraceptives."

The government already pays out grants to support landowners to manage the population of grey squirrels, but some MPs believe these payments must go further and provide more support for reintroducing pine martens.

Tory MP Andrew Selous MP said the "invasion" of grey squirrels had caused millions of pounds in damage to trees and woodlands in the UK.

"We cannot sit idly by and let this continue," he said.

"The government has set a legally binding target to increase species abundance by 10 per cent by 2042 in an effort to help restore our wildlife.

"To meet this target and protect our native species, we also need to restore their habitats. The recent expansion of the government’s Landscape Recovery programme will help but this should be accompanied by more support for pine marten reintroduction projects and research to help restore this native species that is a natural predator of grey squirrels."

Red squirrel
The native red squirrel is classified as endangered in England and Wales (Alamy)

Kitty Thompson, Senior Nature Programme Manager at CEN, said: "To help meet our goal of halting species decline, the government should support pine martens reintroduction projects and fund vital research into their effectiveness as a way to protect red squirrel populations.

"Pine martens, which are also a native species, are known to control grey squirrel numbers, but can co-exist with red squirrels. This dual-biodiversity boost to the UK’s native animal population can help to protect and restore our natural environment."

This is not the first time MPs have raised this issue in recent months. During a debate in Parliament in November, DUP MP Jim Shannon described grey squirrels as the “Hamas of the squirrel world”, comparing them to the violent Palestinian militant group.

There are currently no targets for controlling grey squirrel populations, but in the November debate, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Nature Rebecca Pow assured MPs that a "grey squirrel action plan" would be published shortly by the Department for Environmental and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The plan is yet to be published.

However, grey squirrel traps and culls are opposed by many animal rights activists, and some scientists have suggested that intervening to reduce grey squirrel populations is not necessarily needed to protect red squirrels. 

Freelance ecologist Nigel Dudley published a book in December which argued that red squirrels have a healthy global population and the UK should therefore focus on protecting other native endangered species.

Co-leader of the Green Party Adrian Ramsay told PoliticsHome that he supported efforts to reintroduce pine martens but said the UK should be looking at other underlying factors which impact the population of red squirrels.

"We need to take a step back and look at why this is an issue," he said.

"Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth and loss of habitat has a huge impact on biodiversity and the balance of ecosystems, including through the loss of predator species.

"Restoring nature and the reintroduction of pine martens are the types of solutions needed to address the root cause here, and Greens back the work of conservation groups on this which needs more funding and support."

An RSPCA spokesperson said that in their view, eradicating long-established entire populations of grey squirrels would be very difficult and likely to cause suffering. 

"We will always support plans that achieve the best possible welfare outcomes for the species concerned and welcome initiatives to find non-lethal methods of population management for grey squirrels," they said.

"These could include immuno-contraception trials to reduce the breeding success of grey squirrels which we understand is making good progress."

"When considering ways of controlling populations of wild animals, the RSPCA always advocates using an evidence-based decision-making process to explore all potential options and determine the most ethical approach. At a time when we should all be seeking to reduce conflict with the natural world, a thoughtful and humane approach to living with species such as grey squirrels is welcome.”

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “Grey squirrels are an invasive species and the growing population threaten our native biodiversity, costing the economy £37 million per year in negative impacts to our trees, woodlands and red squirrel populations. We are committed to ensuring their wide-ranging impacts are reduced.

“We are undertaking a number of initiatives to curb the impact of grey squirrels which will be outlined in the forthcoming Grey Squirrel Action Plan, alongside ongoing work to help support the recovery of native red squirrel populations across the country.”

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