Last month the law that officially made it an offence to fail to report the presence of grey squirrels was scrapped. But, as Philip Bowern reports, the battle by foresters and conservationists goes on.
It was perhaps inevitable that a law few even knew existed and even fewer observed would eventually find itself condemned to the dustbin of English legal history
And on many levels the scrapping of the order that made it a legal responsibility for anyone seeing a grey squirrel to report it to the authorities marks a victory for common sense. A regulation that no one observes and is largely unenforceable has no place in English law.
Yet some commentators made the mistake of assuming that because Solicitor General Oliver Heald revoked the law on reporting the American interlopers that do such damage to our woodlands and have driven out the native red squirrel, we should all make peace with the fluffly-tailed tree rats.
Not a bit of it. Talk to anyone who makes their living planting and caring for woodland and you will find that the war against the greys is being as bitterly fought as ever.
John Varley, director of the Clinton Devon Estates has overall responsibility for thousands of acres of woodland and parkland across parts of East and North Devon. He revealed recently that they almost never plant oaks on the estate these days because the grey squirrels destroy the trees. “The greys make it impossible to plant oaks,” he said. “They strip the bark from the trees, for the sake of it.
“I could show you a plantation of oaks in North Devon that looks as if it has been sprayed by Agent Orange – it is the grey squirrels who have done the damage.”
Grey squirrels were introduced into the UK in 1876 at Henbury Park in Cheshire by the land owner who liked to see what seemed at the time to be a delightful mammal jumping between the trees and running across the park.
Since then, thanks to further introductions by the Victorians and the greys’ ability to reproduce itself at an alarming rate, numbers have rocketed to some five million.
At the same time the native red squirrel has been pushed back into a few strongholds. Infected by a pox carried by greys, which seem unaffected, red squirrel numbers have plunged with just 170,000 living here, largely confined to the north and the Isle of Wight.
Efforts are continuing to re-introduce red squirrels into the wild in Cornwall by effectively clearing the greys from two areas in the far west of the country before releasing the reds into West Penwith and the Lizard.
Both target areas are peninsulas with narrow bands of land joining them to the rest of Cornwall. West Penwith uses the Hayle River to Marazion line as a boundary, and the Lizard uses a line between the Helford river and Loe Bar near Porthleven. Both of these lines make use of natural watercourses, but although these help delineate the areas, they have little effect on the grey squirrel populations except at the wider end of the Helford, as greys are good swimmers and will cross even substantial water bodies if they can see woodland on the other side.
The project, over three to five years takes a two-pronged approach to bringing back the reds. The first priority is to ensure the on-going removal of grey squirrels from the target areas and buffer zone, which means cage trapping and shooting. Secondly the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project supporters are out and about enthusing and educating the public about the plight of the red squirrel.
It’s a task that Janet Wickens of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust believes has not been helped by the decision to take greys off the ‘wanted list’. She told the WMN dropping the requirement that people should report greys was a “real disappointment.”
“I think these laws are particularly useful in places like Cornwall where we are trying to eradicate the grey squirrel,” she said.
There are plenty of landowners who need no encouragement to continue to wage war on the greys, however, with shooting and trapping a regular occurrence. In some restaurants, squirrel even appears on the menu at certain times of year.
The status of the grey squirrel has not been changed by this alteration in the law. It remains officially a pest.