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Red Squirrel Population

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2006

It might help right hon. and hon. Members if I inform them that this morning I exercised Mr. Speaker’s dispensation for male Members to divest themselves of their upper garment if they feel incapacitated by the temperature. I shall do so myself.

It gives me great pleasure to introduce the debate, because it gives us an opportunity to revisit the threat to the red squirrel, which is one of the most treasured features of our native wildlife. I initiated a debate on the subject almost 10 years ago to the day, but since that debate not a lot has happened to help the red squirrel and its position remains as bad as it was when I first highlighted it, which is a great pity. After the previous debate my office received about 500 letters, every one of which condemned me as a cruel and evil man who wanted to exterminate grey squirrels, which, as hon. Members will know, are the main cause of the red squirrel’s decline. Interestingly, what has improved since then is public opinion on the matter. The European Squirrel Initiative, whose help in this debate I very much appreciate, has found in recent opinion polls that the public have—as a result of better information, I think—realised that the grey squirrel, which they, quite reasonably, find attractive, is causing the destruction of the red squirrel.

I do not know why, but the red squirrel inspires particular affection in many people’s minds. Perhaps they read Beatrix Potter when they were young, or they admire the red squirrel’s grace and elegance as it moves through the tree canopies of the broadleaf and conifer woods that it so likes, or they admire its habit of squirreling away its winter food supplies. The red squirrel is held in high regard. The curious thing about that admiration is that, despite its being an iconic animal, many members of the public have never seen a red squirrel. In London and the south-east, one probably has to be over 60 years old to have seen a red squirrel, because red squirrels were replaced in this part of the country by greys many years ago.

Only a loose definition puts the Isle of Wight in the south-east, but on the island one does not have to be over 60 to have seen a red squirrel.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for attending the debate, because, as I well know, the Isle of Wight is an important reservoir of red squirrels. It is fortunate in being separated from the mainland by a stretch of water, which I think is why red squirrels have been saved there.

The grey squirrel was introduced in the 19th century as an ornament to estate gardens. No doubt that was thought to be a good idea at the time, but since then the grey squirrel has spread and now it is causing or is likely to cause an environmental disaster for our native red squirrels. The issue of alien species has come to the fore in recent years. Throughout the world, there are a number of examples of what we have seen happen in this country. Apart from the grey squirrel, we have the American mink, which has caused considerable damage to our rivers, and foreign fish and shellfish species have also been introduced. Not the least among the vegetation that has been introduced into this country is the humble rhododendron, which many people admire hugely. One admires rhododendrons when one sees them in formal gardens, but in parts of the west of Scotland, as I am sure the Minister knows, they are spreading and causing great problems. The problem of alien species is not unique to the UK; it occurs all over the world. The Australians are trying to eliminate European foxes, which were introduced to develop fox hunting in Australia. That puts me in a slight quandary, as I am rather fond of fox hunting, but I can understand the reasons for what the Australians are doing, because European foxes have done a lot of damage in that country. In another example, the New Zealand authorities are making a substantial effort—quite successfully, I believe—to eliminate the possum from the New Zealand countryside.

I apologise if I am unable to stay for the whole debate, but it might be helpful if those who wrote to the hon. Gentleman understood that we are where we are and that no one is proposing the extermination of grey squirrels throughout the United Kingdom. Our aim is to safeguard areas such as the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and the area that I represent in Northumberland which still offer havens to red squirrels, which are under serious threat. Somehow we need to devise ways in which to protect some terrain on which the red squirrel can survive.

I agree with my right hon. neighbour, whose constituency, like mine, has a large number of red squirrels. In fact, the Hexham constituency contains 80 per cent. of the red squirrel population in England. There are other healthy populations on the Isle of Wight and on Brownsea island off the south coast, for many of the same reasons. There are a few in Thetford forest, at Sefton in Merseyside and in Cumbria, as well as some populations in central Wales, the Scottish borders and the Scottish highlands. However, their numbers are shrinking. That is the problem that we face, and the problem on which I shall focus.

Not only is the grey squirrel a pest and a threat to the red squirrel, but it does considerable damage to forestry interests. In addition, the cobnut growers of Kent estimate that they lose about 50 per cent. of their crop annually because of theft by grey squirrels. Just the other day, I was in Kensington Gardens on an all-party horticultural trip. The park authorities find that the grey squirrel is a particular menace to trees and flowerbeds and they are desperately trying to discourage people from feeding them, which I can well understand.

The news has been bad so far, but the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) touched on some good news for the red squirrel. There has been a substantial new initiative in the north—in Cumbria and Northumberland and on the Scottish borders—to preserve what we have. That is our first priority: we must save what we have and stop the remorseless advance of the greys. Kielder forest is an ideal habitat for red squirrels, and the Forestry Commission and others have formed an organisation, Red Alert, which represents all sorts of interests in the area. About a year ago, it had a meeting in Newcastle and determined a new strategy to create 16 reserve areas mainly in the north. They will be guarded and a buffer zone—a cordon sanitaire—will created around round them in which everyone will make an effort to stop the spread of grey squirrels. All the legal methods available will be used to control the populations in that area and stop the squirrels mixing, which is important.

The 16 areas are mainly in Northumberland and Cumbria, but there is also one at Widdale near Hawes and at Sefton in Merseyside. The partners in the scheme will band together and take every possible action to protect the red squirrels within the cordon. Recently, there was a pleasant announcement that the campaign will receive a little more than £600,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will be added to the £500,000 that the partners in the Red Alert squirrel campaign have raised themselves. I particularly appreciate the Heritage Lottery Fund and its chairman, Liz Forgan, for being so imaginative and providing funding for that purpose. It will be put to good use. Lord Redesdale, a colleague of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, is putting together a campaign to link farmers and landowners in the area better so that the control of the grey squirrel can go ahead.

That is good news in the sense that the Scottish authorities are co-operating. In the past, Scotland has tended to do its own thing. It has its own problems with grey squirrels introduced in the central belt, which are advancing down into the borders and up into the highlands. From a selfish point of view, those in the borders worry us most of all because they are coming down south and could invade from that side. We need the co-operation of the forestry interests in Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and others to make the circle round Kielder forest and the forests on the borders tight and complete. That is the good news.

The bad news is something called squirrel pox virus, which is an affliction to which grey squirrels are immune, but to which the reds are not. Not all grey squirrels have it, but the problem is that some of those that do are in Cumbria, and they are beginning to cross the border and spread out into Scotland. That could bring them into contact with the protective buffer zone around the squirrels in Kielder forest. We are concerned because two red squirrels were recently found within two miles of my home in Northumberland, and examination showed that they had died from the squirrel pox virus. So the virus is spreading in Northumberland, which is particularly bad news.

Generally, when grey squirrels invade an area, the reds disappear slowly—it is a gradual erosion. Many experts who are listening will know better than I, but I believe that it happens largely because the grey squirrel is about twice the weight of a red squirrel and eats a lot more than the red squirrel. In addition, the densities of squirrel populations vary—the density of the red squirrel population is estimated to be slightly more than one per hectare, whereas the density of the grey is about eight per hectare. There is therefore much more pressure on a piece of woodland where the grey squirrels are present, yet the greys and the reds are competing for the same food supplies. We believe that lack of food and perhaps lack of breeding space causes the reds’ physical condition to deteriorate, so that they die over the winter or fail to reproduce because the females’ fertility is affected by their poor physical condition. When squirrel pox virus starts to spread, however, the decline becomes 20 times greater and the population crashes very quickly. It is an immediate and serious threat to the future of the red squirrel.

The argument is not simply a UK-centric one. The red squirrel is common throughout Europe and, I believe, in part of Asia. Red squirrels are all slightly different but they are all red, though some in parts of Germany they look black. They are part of the European wildlife scene, whereas greys were introduced into the UK and Ireland—where they are also a problem. They were introduced into Italy just after the war, in 1948, and they have spread so that it is estimated that there are now some 8 million in northern Italy. There is a danger that they will spread northwards into and over the Alps—like Hannibal—and once they achieve that they will be present in France and Switzerland and throughout Europe. The Italian Government had not done a lot about the problem, but the European Squirrel Initiative tells me that following a helpful meeting the Italian Government have decided to take action against the spread of greys. As with everything in life there is usually a commercial interest involved. The advent of the greys in part of Italy where there is a large hazelnut industry has concentrated minds, because the industry regards them as a threat to an important crop in the Italian economy. It is good news that Europeans are taking an interest.

I do not wish to become a bore, but there are some slight complications with which the Minister may be able to help. One way forward that we have identified is to get some European money to help to fund research projects that will benefit the squirrel population in Europe and the UK. The Berne convention protects the European squirrel—European squirrels are listed in appendix 3 of the convention. For reasons that we do not understand, however, the 1992 habitats directive, which introduced the Berne convention into European domestic legislation, does not list the red squirrel in its annexes. The Berne convention and the habitats directive put an obligation on national authorities to safeguard endangered species and to tackle introduction of alien species. If the Government could persuade the European Commission to add the red squirrel to the European directive, we could consider the issue on a European basis, which could have helpful repercussions for research funding.

The Government can help in a number of respects—some small, but others more important. The first—the most important and most immediate—relates to Government help with funding for research into the squirrel pox virus. The problem is that we do not know how the virus is transmitted, and there is only circumstantial, rather than positive evidence about how it affects the red. We know that it does affect the red, because the red population crashes, but, scientifically, there is no link. We know from tests that greys have antibodies to the virus, so we can see that they have had it but not been affected. However, no one knows where in the animal’s body the virus is kept, how it is translated—perhaps it is at feeding sites—or how it has moved from the grey to the red.

I am pleased to say that considerable research is going on at the Moredun research institute in Edinburgh and at Liverpool university. The problem is that the researchers are on short-term contracts, and if we do not get research funding, there is a danger that those contracts will run out before any progress has been made. I therefore make a plea to the Minister to see whether we can find some funds—they will not be extensive—so that those research programmes can carry on and find out much more about the pox virus. Once we understand how it is translated from the grey to the red, we can start to do research on developing a vaccine to help the red squirrel, which would be of great interest.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could also help through its woodland grant programme. It currently gives out woodland grants which, in areas where there are red squirrels, make allowances for grey squirrel control. The difficulty is that the grants are cash-limited, so there is no guarantee that somebody who has a grant now will get continue to get one; that will depend on how much money there is in the budget in the next round. Of course, it was always thus in government, but hon. Members will understand that that would lead to a break in the continuity of grey squirrel control. In addition, small woods—those covering less than 3 hectares, although I might be wrong about the size—are not included in the woodland grant schemes. However, grey squirrels use small broadleaf woods as a stepping stone into new territory, and it would be extremely helpful if the Minister could see whether there was any way of giving some of the grant money for grey squirrel control to owners of small woodlands.

I mentioned listing the red squirrel in the habitats directive, but I hope that the Minister will also give us more support in our search for the holy grail—a method of restricting grey squirrels. I am not advocating a complete cull or slaughter of grey squirrels, which would be totally pointless, given the size of the population. One could not exterminate them using normal means of control such as shooting and trapping. Scientists across the world who deal with introduced alien species are trying to find an immuno-contraception method—a way of interfering with the fertility of the animal. If they can develop such a method, it would be the answer to the problem of the grey squirrel population. We would not be slaughtering the greys; instead, they would slowly die out in the areas where we used that technique. That would allow us to pick areas that were suitable for the reintroduction of the red and then to carry a gentle programme of humane eradication of the grey squirrel population there.

Work was done on that system at Sheffield university, and much was made of it 10 years ago when I had a debate on this issue, but that work came to an end. However, the Central Science Laboratory in York, with the help of some DEFRA funding, is looking again at the system. The Australians have been trying for years to introduce it among rabbits, but without success. It is something that science needs to pursue it if we are to get rid of the alien species that cause so much damage to our native species.

We need to make a real effort to save the red squirrel. The new sanctuaries around the country will be our last chance. If they are invaded and the march of the greys continues, the gloomy prediction of some scientists, that the red squirrel population in this country will have died out within 20 years, will be realised. I think that we would all say that that would be a great tragedy.

I commend the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on his persistence, coming back to the subject 10 years later to point out that the situation has become worse in the meantime, with the invasion of greys into the areas of red squirrel population, which were once more widespread in Northumberland than they are today. I well remember often seeing red squirrels in the Tyne valley, for example, where I believe that greys are now to be found. We hope that Kielder forest will remain a major sanctuary, and across the north of Northumberland there are a number of smaller woodland areas where we still have red squirrels. We do not want to see that territory taken over by greys.

Grey squirrels are a feature of the landscape of much of the United Kingdom, and clearly it would be neither possible nor popular to remove them entirely. In many parts of the country, they are quite natural. They are the only squirrel that people see, people enjoy seeing them and they are fascinating creatures. However, in those areas where we still have red squirrels it is vital under any interpretation of biodiversity that we retain them. That will require tough action, such as the rigid maintenance of sanctuary areas and the buffer zones around them, and definite action to ensure that any arrival of greys into those areas is dealt with quickly. Research such as that mentioned by the hon. Gentleman offers us considerable possibilities for the future. Finally, we need urgently to find some way to deal with squirrel pox. What a bitter blow it was when the news came to those in Northumberland who have made such assiduous efforts over long periods to try to preserve the habitat of the reds that there was another threat to their survival.

I hope that the population in the Isle of Wight, represented here by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), can be sustained. Species have crossed stretches of water before now, although I am not sure whether there have been serious grey sightings on the island. Keeping species out is that much more difficult when the only barrier is a land barrier.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Hexham has secured this debate again. I welcome the continued efforts of volunteers and volunteer organisations and the part that they are playing, and I plead for Government recognition of the problem and for Government support, resources—not enormous resources but enough to help with the essential research needs—and a willingness to support the decisive action that will need to be taken where greys directly threaten those few remaining sanctuary areas that we must keep for red squirrels.

I had not intended to make a speech in this debate, but I see that there might be a moment or two to spare and I thought that I would mention one or two courses of action that I cannot recommend to every part of the country but that we have found useful on the Isle of Wight.

The first, of course, was the beneficial effect of global warming, when the island was separated from the mainland of the United Kingdom. That is not a course of action whose use I advocate in other parts of the country, but it has meant that we have had some immunity from other diseases. Bovine TB, for example, is much less prevalent on the island and, thankfully, foot and mouth did not come to the island during the most recent outbreak because people were very vigilant. The red squirrel has been protected by the stretch of water that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned.

I would also like to congratulate and place on the record my appreciation of the Wight Squirrel Project—note the spelling, in case the colours should get further mixed up. The project keeps a close eye on the welfare and well-being of red squirrels on the island. All my constituents want the red squirrel to continue to thrive and they are worried by any report that grey squirrels have been seen. The sighting or putative sighting of a grey squirrel is a matter of great concern: it is reported in the local papers and people make a great effort to find the offending animal. Recently, an acquaintance of mine was successfully prosecuted for spreading rumours about the importation on to the island of grey squirrels—the New Labour equivalent of spreading alarm and despondency. We take the matter very seriously.

The only specific point that I want to make is about habitat. He may have done so, but I did not hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) mention in particular what habitats are more likely to support red squirrel populations than grey squirrel populations. My understanding is that coniferous forests are more likely than deciduous forests to support the grey squirrel. I hope that any further work of the Government and the Forestry Commission will give appropriate provision.

It is the other way round. The red squirrel likes conifers. They appear to prosper in conifers, perhaps because they are smaller than greys and are able to extract seeds from spruce trees and such, whereas the greys are bigger and perhaps more clumsy. The reds seem to do better with conifers, which is why Kielder forest, for example, is going to be a reserve.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That probably explains why I—or, rather, my dog—have found them in Northwood park in Cowes. I am pleased to say that squirrels are faster than terriers. There are a number of excellent species of coniferous conifers in Northwood park.

Red squirrels are widespread throughout the island, easy to see both in daylight and on reasonably light evenings. They are a great tourist attraction. If you want to see a red squirrel, Mr. Cook, I recommend that you, or any hon. Member, come to the island. You would not have to walk far from a convenient hostelry to see one.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing the debate. He has been involved in a number of occasions in the past and, more recently, in the other place where there was a debate on the issue.

The issue raises a fundamental question of biodiversity within the United Kingdom and with a species in which we clearly have a considerable interest. Estimates that I have seen suggest that there may be as few as 160,000 red squirrels left within the United Kingdom, with somewhat upwards of 2 million grey squirrels competing for the same sorts of habitat. We have already heard a clear description of the means by which the red squirrel is gradually being chased out of traditional habitats within the UK, notably the pressure on resources—in particular habitats—but also the parapox or squirrel pox, which has the unfortunate effect of causing skin ulcers and lesions on the red squirrel but to which the grey squirrel has immunity.

The introduction of the grey squirrel from north America at the end of the 19th century has an exact parallel with other transatlantic migrations. We wrought havoc in America with human diseases and the invasion of Cortez. In the other direction, there is a direct parallel in agriculture, for example, with the importation of the phylloxera beetle into France and the destruction of the vineyards. With the exception of one small area of France, every French vine now grows on American root stock because of its immunity to diseases and particularly to the phylloxera beetle.

An excellent way forward would be to develop an immunity to the parapox virus or some means of ensuring that the red squirrel was better protected. Realistically, however, I fear that the time scale for research is inevitably uncertain, although I hope that we can do more to support the research that is being conducted into the problem.

I note that other suggestions have been made. Despite its robust animal welfare traditions, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has not entirely set its face against the need for selective culling in order to protect areas for the red squirrel. I am afraid that that is something we have to do to protect habitats and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, establish buffer zones and sanctuaries for the red squirrels. We also need to consider the habitats directive and provide what protection we can for the red squirrels in that context.

There is a real sense of urgency. The hon. Member for Hexham is one of the few remaining MPs who, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, represents an area in which the red squirrel is still extant in England. As has been mentioned, if more radical action is not taken to protect the red squirrel, there is a chance that within 20 years we will see a steady spread of the grey squirrel and a steady pushing out of the red squirrel from these islands altogether, with the possible exception of sanctuaries such as the Isle of Wight, which, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) rightly pointed out, has so far managed to preserve its peculiar advantages in that respect.

I hope that this debate serves as a wake-up call for the Government to take action along the lines that I have suggested in improving the research commitment and habitat protection, including selective culling where necessary, perhaps with a premium or bounty offered to foresters, in order to protect areas for the red squirrel so that it may thrive.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing this important debate. It has been 10 years since his Adjournment debate that called for the control of grey squirrels and, I believe, two years since the last Westminster Hall debate on the matter.

Although some progress has been made, it is such a pity that the Government have not done more during that period. Indeed, the present Administration have quite a sad record on wildlife management. I hope that the decline of the red squirrel will be removed from the catalogue of errors that has included the increase of tuberculosis in wildlife. Moreover, the Government have failed to get the red squirrel included in the habitats directive, but that does not mean that it should not receive the same level of protection.

It would also be helpful if the Minister could update us on developments in the research into immuno-contraceptive vaccines for grey squirrels. I am curious to know how much of the £1 million the three-year fertility control project has devoted specifically to squirrels. I understand that the Government have been encouraging landowners to cull grey squirrels in certain areas where they pose a critical threat to red squirrels, but I am curious about the fact that the proposed measures, which include giving the grant to woodland owners, will be rolled out for only three years. Thousands of red squirrels could have disappeared from England by then, and the measures could prove to be too little, too late. Can the Minister let us know what information he has on the extent to which private landowners are managing the grey squirrel population?

It is difficult to see how we can save the red squirrel without some control of the grey squirrel population, as the latter has two distinct advantages that are causing the red squirrel to decline. The first is the survival of the fittest, and the second the fact that the grey squirrel is a carrier of the parapox virus, which we have heard about in this debate. We know that the dreadful parapox virus has played its part in the demise of the red squirrel and that the grey squirrel is immune to its deadly effects.

There is an especially urgent need to learn more about the virus and how to fight it, because there are reports that it is beginning to penetrate the red squirrel’s heartlands, in the Kielder forest. If the virus should become endemic to the area, there would be a serious and possibly irreversible decline in England’s red squirrel numbers. I am consequently keen to hear from the Minister what studies are being carried out into these differences and into the mode of transmission and whether there has been any progress in searching for a parapox cure. I am aware that the Moredun research institute is doing a lot of work in this area and I would be interested to know whether the Government intend to commission it to continue and to conduct further research.

We have much to learn from existing research, but there is far more work to be done if we are to save the red squirrel population. We are running out of time and it would be a terrible tragedy if the Government did not get it right. The red squirrel evokes considerable emotion among the public, not just because of its underdog status but because of its iconic status immortalised by Beatrix Potter. I have very young children, and it is probably worth mentioning briefly that Squirrel Nutkin, who is a red squirrel, is not a particularly good squirrel compared with Timmy Tiptoes, the grey squirrel, who, although greedy, is a better behaved squirrel.

I also note that in April the Heritage Lottery Fund contributed £626,000 of the £1 million going into the “Save Our Squirrels” project as part of the Red Alert North England partnership. Will this be sufficient to halt the decline? The red squirrel is an essential part of England’s heritage and to lose it would send out all the wrong signals and be a disaster for conservation, as well as for our heritage and for our biodiversity. Over our own lifetimes, I am sure hon. Members have noticed how increasingly unusual it is becoming to see red squirrels, even in their few remaining most populous pockets. Clearly, the challenge and way forward now is to find and develop effective conservation methods, many of which have been raised in this debate, if the red squirrel population of England and Wales is to avoid its predicted fate.

This year marks the 130th anniversary of the introduction of grey squirrels into Britain and with that the beginning of the slow decline of native red squirrels. Who would have thought back in 1876 that the handful of greys from north America, introduced into the woodlands of Cheshire, and subsequent introductions would have placed the red squirrels in the position of peril and near extinction that they face today? Indeed, three years ago a DEFRA report stated that the extinction of the red squirrel in England and Wales was likely in the foreseeable future. I am sure that this is something that nobody wishes to see.

While it is estimated that the red squirrel population throughout the UK is 160,000 and in England stands at around 20,000 but could be as low as 12,000, the greys have flourished with their numbers heading swiftly upwards towards the 3 million mark. With such a contrast in fortunes, we must do what we can primarily to maintain, and then if possible increase, our red squirrel numbers. There are so many species that are native to Britain which were once abundant and are now threatened with extinction, but I hope that it is not too late for the red squirrel.

With that in mind, I mention that back in 2004 in a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), confirmed that there had been no assessment made of the changes to the red squirrel population over the last five years, and English Nature stated that the population knowledge was poor. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether that is still the case. I will be disappointed if it is, as there are no precise figures for the red squirrel population although there are for some of the other biodiversity action plan priority species.

Aside from Scotland where the majority of reds in the UK live, the Isle of Wight, northern England, Anglesey and Brownsea island can also boast a reasonably strong presence. However, to preserve these strongholds we must see stringent measures adopted. In this respect, I broadly welcomed the “Grey Squirrels and England’s Woodlands: Policy and Action Statement” announcement on 22 January which aimed to manage the risks presented by the grey squirrel.

Nevertheless, I was curious to know why the Government decided only this year to encourage the Forestry Commission to focus its efforts on disrupting the grey squirrel population. Only back in April 2003 did the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), say that the Government’s emphasis is on protecting current red squirrel habitats, rather than interfering with the grey squirrel. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us on that change in Government policy.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing this debate on the red squirrel. Perhaps appropriately, the species’ greatest stronghold, Kielder forest, lies in his northern England constituency. The decline of red squirrel numbers was the subject of a debate in another place about three months ago. I share the widespread desire expressed then and today in this Chamber to see the red squirrel maintained as part of our native wildlife, although, as was acknowledged by Earl Peel and others, it is unrealistic, at least in the foreseeable future, to envisage the eradication of the grey squirrel to enable the red squirrel to re-establish itself across its original range.

Although the red squirrel is certainly not at risk in continental Europe, its decline here over the past 50 years means that it is at risk in the UK. That is why the red squirrel is offered strong protection in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence intentionally to kill, injure, take or sell the animal, or to destroy, damage or obstruct access to its breeding place. It is also the subject of a species action plan as part of the UK biodiversity action plan. I say that in response to a number of suggestions by hon. Members this afternoon that because it is not listed in the annexe to the habitats directive, it is not protected to the same degree as species that are. In fact, it is afforded such protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act within the UK. I hope that that provides some reassurance to right hon. and hon. Members.

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. There is a feeling that if the red squirrel were put into the annexe, that would trigger a greater interest in Europe in its future survival. As he says, the species is not endangered at all in continental Europe, except in Italy. People campaigning for the red squirrel believe that that would be a useful thing to do, and would help to raise funds.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. In fact, the Commission has signalled a review of the directive’s annexes to update them, based on the latest scientific evidence, over the next few years. It may well be that that is an appropriate opportunity to get Europe more engaged on the matter. I certainly share the hon. Gentlemen’s sentiments.

Can the Minister therefore give us an assurance today that he and, if he is not in post, his successors, will ensure that the red squirrel in included in the habitats directive?

What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that we shall do absolutely all that we can to ensure that the red squirrel is protected and preserved. If the opportunity should present itself within the revision of the annexes, and if that proves to be an efficient way of achieving the objective that everyone in the Chamber this afternoon shares, it is of course something that we should, and will, consider.

What we are talking about now, however, is how we can safeguard and preserve those remaining viable populations of red squirrels. In England, there are two areas where viable red squirrel populations remain: in the south, on the Isle of Wight, as we have heard, and Poole harbour islands, and in the forests of northern England. In both regions, partnerships involving private landowners, local authorities and conservation bodies are working together to try to save the red squirrel. The Government play a key role in such partnerships, as a land manager and funder and by providing expert advice. On the whole, the debate this afternoon has been extremely good natured and focused on the same aim, although I was somewhat disappointed that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) said that the Government needed a wake-up call. In fact, the Government have been heavily engaged in the issue and earlier this year, as he may know, launched their action plan in January on the red squirrel. The Government have not been standing idly by, as he and the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) might have suggested.

In both regions, the partnerships involving private landowners, local authorities and conservation bodies working together to save the red squirrel are critical. The Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Forum, led by Isle of Wight council, has led a wide range of initiatives including the monitoring of the red squirrel population. It has prepared contingency plans for dealing with any incursion of grey squirrels, and those plans have already successfully been put to the test, albeit, fortunately, by a false alarm. The contingency plan sprang into action and there was an invasion of people with the appropriate measures for dealing with a grey squirrel incursion before it was found that there was no threat.

Grants totalling £735,000 have supported the creation of 210 hectares of new woodland by landowners on the Isle of Wight. The new woods link areas of existing woodland, much of which is managed by the Forestry Commission to favour red squirrels. The links have increased red squirrels’ ability to move around, as they are a species that prefers to keep to the trees rather than travel on the ground. They have also been helped by the introduction of rope bridges to cross busy highways.

The work to maintain red squirrels on the Isle of Wight is a good illustration of what can be done through co-operation between local communities and organisations and national bodies. Co-operation between a wide range of bodies is equally key in the north of England, where there is no water barrier to protect the reds and where the greys have advanced inexorably through mixed woodland in the past 20 years. Research by Newcastle university has shown that the best chance for red squirrels to survive is in large coniferous forests that are unsuitable for greys. The Red Alert North England partnership has brought together private landowners’ representatives, the wildlife trusts, national park authorities, DEFRA, English Nature and the Forestry Commission to work together to preserve the remaining red squirrel population.

Based on research evidence the partnership has produced the north of England red squirrel conservation strategy, which identifies 16 red squirrel reserves where it believes the red has the best chance of long-term survival. Those reserve areas and the surrounding buffer zones now have management guidelines to help landowners and managers to conserve red squirrels.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Research is under way to identify likely grey squirrel incursion corridors. It will provide a scientific base for targeting grey squirrel control measures. The scale of management already under way reflects the severity of the situation. In Kielder forest, the largest of the reserves, which extends to an area almost 1.5 times the size of the Isle of Wight, large-seeded broadleaf species such as oak, which favour the grey squirrel, are no longer being planted. Felling and replanting take the red squirrel’s needs into account, and Norway spruce is being planted so that red squirrels need not rely solely on the cone crop from Sitka spruce.

The Red Alert partnership has been successful in its bid by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust to the Heritage Lottery Fund, to which hon. Members have alluded, for £626,000 to help to deliver its £1.1 million three-year project plan. One of the plan’s key elements is the recruitment of a team to help and encourage landowners in the buffer zones to undertake habitat management and grey squirrel control. The project manager has been appointed and further staff are being recruited. Delivery of the partnership’s plans will proceed in earnest in early autumn.

We are also helping with support provided by the Forestry Commission through the English woodland grant scheme. There has been a healthy demand in the north-east for the £30,000 available under the woodland improvement grant, which provides up to 80 per cent. of the cost of conservation work in red squirrel reserves and buffer zones. In response to the questions of the hon. Member for Hexham about future funding, I am pleased to tell him that next year’s budget for such grants in the north-east and north-west will total £50,000. Alongside that, the woodland management grant can contribute to the cost of woodland management to favour red squirrels.

The Rural Development Service in the north-east has received an application for assistance under the rural enterprise scheme for a red squirrel protection group, which will be considered soon. Although the application was made independently, the Red Alert partnership has been working with the applicant to co-ordinate their efforts, and it supports the application.

It is impossible to consider the red squirrel without considering the grey, which in one way or another appears largely responsible for the red’s displacement. In another place, Lord Inglewood gave DEFRA Ministers an invitation to dine on grey squirrel in a hotel in the Lake district. Even if his offer still stands, I would find it difficult to say that I am tempted. I understand from the hon. Member for Leominster that squirrel was Elvis Presley’s favourite dish, but it would certainly not be mine and would probably put me off his music for a long time.

At the risk of a further 500 letters, I have to say that I have actually tasted grey squirrel—they eat it in America. Although there is not a lot of meat on it, to say the least, it tastes rather like chicken and is quite palatable.

The hon. Gentleman began the debate by saying that a decade ago 500 of his constituents had written to him saying—

Five hundred people from across the country wrote to him saying that he was a cruel and evil man. I cannot imagine what his postbag will grow to now.

I understand that Gordon Ramsay has cooked grey squirrel and offered it to the public, but, as Minister responsible for biodiversity, I do not feel able to promote eating a grey squirrel to save a red one. The relationship between red and grey squirrels is not straightforward. It is not simply the case that greys drive out reds, as they have been known to live in the same area for up to 50 years. However, it appears that, in the end, greys do displace the reds.

Some grey squirrels carry the squirrel pox virus, as has been mentioned by hon. Members this afternoon. Although they appear to be unaffected themselves, the virus can have a devastating effect on the red squirrel population and accelerate the red’s displacement by up to 20 times, as the hon. Member for Hexham said. The squirrel pox virus is a worrying development and the Forestry Commission organised a workshop to develop ideas for further research, which funding agencies are examining closely.

The Forestry Commission and DEFRA are collaborating on research into the use of the immuno-contraception as a method of controlling the grey squirrel population. That is part of a larger DEFRA-led project looking at fertility control methods for a range of problem species. The work on squirrels is based on methods recently developed in the United States where a single-dose vaccine remains effective for a number of years. For a number of years in the USA, that vaccine has been administered successfully by injection, but of course injection is not an option for squirrels. We are looking therefore at oral delivery systems, which also are being developed in the United States.

Obviously, we need to ensure that drugs are fully tested and trialled before they are put into a context in which UK wild animals might come across them, that they are effective on the target species and that they can be administered safely without adverse effects on other wildlife and of course humans. One problem is that the vaccine is not species-specific so initial work is concentrating on identification of the best carrier bait and the means to prevent access to the bait by other animals, including red squirrels. It is hoped that sufficient progress will be made for enclosure trials between 2006 and 2008. Clearly, however, it is a difficult problem and we would be foolish to act precipitately, before we are absolutely sure of the science.

As I said earlier, our policy for the control of the grey squirrel in woodland prepared by DEFRA and the Forestry Commission was published on 22 January. It sets out a framework for controlling grey squirrels so that populations are held at a level that does not threaten our native woodlands and priority species. The policy articulates a comprehensive policy and action programme, recognises the wider impact of grey squirrels on priority species and woodland habitats, develops a framework and rationale for targeting action where it will be most effective, and promotes new areas of research. Those new research areas are of particular interest. Scientists from DEFRA and the Forestry Commission are following new developments overseas, particularly in the United States where they have been looking at those matters carefully. They are now investigating fertility control agents for managing wild animal populations. Work will continue on that, but we will not see success overnight.

Previous work on immuno-contraception involving the university of Sheffield ended without success, but demonstrated the difficulties of delivering an effective vaccine in sufficient quantities to wild animals. Non-lethal population control measures alone are not guaranteed to be an effective control and most likely we would need lethal control to reduce numbers before non-lethal methods were used to maintain populations at a reduced level.

Looking a little wider, responsibility for red and grey squirrels in Scotland and Wales lies with the relevant Administrations. However, as squirrels can and do move across borders, I can assure the House that experts in the field work in close co-operation. The hon. Member for Hexham spoke about dangers from the north, which have been a feature of life in Hexham for 1,000 years or more, but dangers from the north are very real to the population of red squirrels. A costed action plan is being prepared in Scotland to implement the Scottish squirrels strategy, which aims to maintain viable populations of red squirrels across their current range in Scotland. In Wales, there has been considerable success in saving and expanding the red squirrel population on Anglesey. That has involved the culling of more than 6,500 grey squirrels, but the greys remain and continued vigilance and control will be required to keep them in check.

Preservation of red squirrel populations is not something that the Government can achieve on their own, but we are taking a lead and will continue to do so. Many people love grey squirrels, but the reality is that they are a problem for some of our most threatened native species, such as the red squirrel and the dormouse. It is not realistic, practical or even desirable to eradicate grey squirrels completely, but we must effectively control them if we are to preserve our population of reds and the biodiversity that they represent.

Sitting suspended.