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Saving the red squirrel from extinction will mean the eradication of the greys

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 11, 2012

Red Squirrels at  Trewithen, near Porbus, where 60 years ago it was common to  see them but now they have had to be re-introduced   PICTURE: EMILY WHITFIELD-WICKS

Red Squirrels at Trewithen, near Porbus, where 60 years ago it was common to see them but now they have had to be re-introduced PICTURE: EMILY WHITFIELD-WICKS

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Red squirrels could be extinct in Britain within 20 years unless their grey cousins are eliminated. Philip Bowern reports on a controversial wildlife management programme to save our native squirrel.

Some sentimental souls like to imagine that the countryside is wild. Yet every acre of bleak moorland, every deep, dark forested glade and every blade of grass on every chalky down is there, in large part, through the management of man.

It is not just habitat that has been shaped through generations of human endeavour, from the ancient peoples who cut down the trees to turn Dartmoor into what we see today, to the 18th century landowners who planted the hedges as part of the enclosures.

Animals and plants have also been brought to these shores, making our flora and fauna an eclectic mix of natural and introduced species.

Some of those that were introduced are much loved and well-looked after. But many cause us problems and some even threaten the indigenous species that have long since called Britain home.

Public enemy number one, for naturalists working to bring the red squirrel back to the level he once enjoyed in his native Britain, is his close cousin, the grey.

Grey squirrels were introduced to the UK in 1876 when a Victorian banker, Thomas Brocklehurst, released a pair into the wild on his estate at Henbury Park in Cheshire. Like many immigrants, the greys took to their new home with gusto and proved incredibly successful. There are now an estimated five million in the woodlands of the UK.

There is a problem, however. The greys are carriers of a disease that does not harm them but causes ulceration of the eyes and nose in red squirrels, killing them in less than seven days. As a result, it is feared the red squirrel, already pushed back into a very few areas of Britain, could be extinct within 20 years.

The only way to save them, according to many naturalists, is to completely eradicate the greys.

It is an uncomfortable policy, even for those fully accepting of the need to control animals in the countryside as part of the management of wildlife.

There is similar controversy, for example, of the ruddy duck, another immigrant from the United States that poses a threat to the "purity" of a species of duck resident in Spain. It is subject to an officially sanctioned total annihilation policy in the UK.

Defra has put a bounty on every ruddy duck's head and, it is reported, duck hunters are close to finishing them off.

Grey squirrels can legally be shot as pests and many foresters, woodland bird lovers and others do carryout extensive culls, "poking" dreys to destroy the squirrels' homes and shooting or poisoning the mammals. The effect in most areas is to keep numbers down rather than totally remove the population.

But in a number of areas, including a site in West Cornwall, efforts are being made to completely wipe-out grey squirrels before releasing their red cousins back into the wild. Natasha Collings, project co-ordinator for the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project, told The Times recently: "If you want reds you have to kill greys. It's a fact."

She is working on a Prince Charles-backed initiative that is working towards eradicating grey squirrels from two areas of Cornwall – one on the Lizard, the other in West Penwith – before captive-bred reds are released.

If successful, the plan is to push out the greys from areas further east, into Devon, and allow the red squirrel to re-colonise areas from which it has been largely excluded for years.

The project, like that in other parts of the UK, is not universally supported, however. BBC wildlife presenter Chris Packham has slammed those behind attempts to bring back red squirrels as "blinded by sentimental racism."

The vegan-supporting animal rights group, Animal Aid, called for a boycott of Duchy Original products to send a message to Prince Charles on the issue. The alternative to the destruction of the grey squirrel, however, is likely to be the extinction of the reds. Thomas Brocklehurst has a great deal to answer for.

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  • ReeceFowler  |  September 12 2012, 4:35PM

    Macmillan, Grey squirrels are carriers of squirrel pox virus, and there is plenty of evidence to support this. Around 70% of grey squirrels in England and Wales have the antibodies to the virus (in other words, they are seropositive), and in these areas, red squirrels suffer from squirrel pox. Squirrel pox only occurs in places where grey squirrels have the antibodies to the virus. That is not just a coincidence. If the virus was in red squirrels before the grey squirrels arrived, why did the virus not appear until grey squirrels arrived on the British landmass? If what you say is true, surely the virus would have appeared earlier? Grey squirrels do carry squirrel pox, and they do out compete red squirrels for food. Through competition alone, greys wipe out reds in around 15 years. Where squirrel pox is present, the decline happens 17 to 25 times faster. The grey squirrel is also a threat to songbirds as well as red squirrels. bullocks400, In Ireland, grey squirrel clubs have been formed and there is a countywide competition for the highest kills. The club from each county with the highest kills gets a cash prize. Something like this would be good over here. A grey squirrel control grant scheme would also help provide more landowners with an incentive to control grey squirrels, encouraging landscape scale grey squirrel control. My total this year stands at 85 grey squirrels, and I am hoping to hit 100 before the year is out.

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  • bullocks400  |  September 11 2012, 10:21PM

    The 'experts' such as Mr Packham do talk in certainties, of course they are right and how dare us ordinary people have a knowledgeable view. Take the emotion and vested interest from the discussion and look at the facts. The grey squirrel is a verminous pest and needs to be controlled. They breed at such a rate that the most effective method of control would be eradication. If Defra or Natural England had any real interest in the enviroment then there would certainly be a bounty on grey squirrel. Of course they are afraid of the cuddly animal brigade. Grey squirrels damage/destroy thousands of out native trees, beech, ash, oak, birch, willow to name a few. They destroy stored feed stuffs, damage electrical wires, spread disease. Wipe out hundreds in an area and within a year the cleared zone will be re-populated. The only way forward is to have a co-ordinated effort to control this pest. That should be the role of Defra. A bounty on squirrel tails, simple.

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  • Macmillan  |  September 11 2012, 8:48PM

    Conservationists tell us that grey squirrels are the "cause" of the red squirrel decline through the transmission of squirrel-pox virus (SQPV) but there is no evidence to support this. It is merely speculation presented as fact. There are a number of ongoing grant funded studies to try to determine the route of infection but would this expensive research be required if the route was already known? It is known that the disease characteristics are similar to other poxvirus infections and that most are resistant to drying. This can allow infected lesions or crusts to remain infected for a long time thus allowing the spread of the disease throughout the forest environment by almost any creature that comes into contact with it. Indeed, Scottish Natural Heritage admit they do not know the route of transmission and that "possibilities include being passed by ectoparasites, fleas, lice, ticks and mites which may transfer from animal to animal in the dreys". They also acknowledge the virus may be airborne spread. Research by McInnes et al in 2006 acknowledges "the possibility that the virus is endemic to the UK and that other rodent species inhabiting the same woodland environment could be harbouring the virus. Under a Freedom of Information request "The Forestry Commission have admitted that no routine testing of live red squirrels is undertaken" and they "are not aware of any scientific evidence one way or another as to whether or not there is a resistant population of reds out there". So it is quite wrong to claim red squirrels have no immunity to the disease. Indeed, recent research by London zoologists has established that red squirrels are beginning to show signs of natural immunity. Early in the last century, out of forty-four districts in England where red squirrels had the disease only four districts had grey squirrels present. This suggests that SQPV has been within the red squirrel population for around a century at least and that grey squirrels are victims of a campaign of unfair vilification. Some people even have the audacity to claim that SQPV somehow arrived around the time it was discovered in 1983 but that is about as ridiculous as claiming America didn't exist before it was "discovered" by Leif Ericson – centuries before Christopher Columbus was born.

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  • ReeceFowler  |  September 11 2012, 5:04PM

    Chris Packham's comments are absolutely ridiculous. His suggestion that saving native wildlife is somehow "sentimental racism" is completely baseless. And how does "racism" come into it anywhere?

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