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Grey Squirrels: Control Studies

Volume 569: debated on Thursday 22 February 1996

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3.10 p.m.

Whether they are arranging to monitor the effects of schemes designed to reduce populations of grey squirrels and so to prevent the extinction of red squirrels in particular areas.

My Lords, the Forestry Commission has for many years been undertaking annual surveys of the distribution of red and grey squirrels and of the number of grey squirrels killed. Two research projects have been set up in Anglesey and Thetford to discover whether controlling grey squirrels will help prevent the extinction of red squirrels.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. I welcome the Government's recent decisions and the help they have been giving over this problem. Does he agree that action is needed soon to prevent serious damage to trees from grey squirrels and to enable the red squirrels to survive? Is he aware that we still have red squirrels in northern Scotland because the greys have not yet penetrated from the south but that it is only a matter of time unless effective culling is undertaken?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a number of good points, not least that there are still many red squirrels in northern Scotland. In fact, three-quarters of the red squirrels in Great Britain are in Scotland. Action, which I agree is essential, is already in place. More action plans will be coming on stream. The Forestry Commission, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, SNH, English Nature and the CCW in Wales are all committed to various action plans. It is important that that action is taken to prevent tree damage and to help red squirrels.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the real villain was Henry VIII who destroyed the forests in which the red squirrels fed? They almost disappeared. When foreign squirrels, including the grey squirrel, were imported, they did not attack the red squirrels but played happily in what pieces of forest were available. Now the red squirrel is particularly susceptible to a virus to which the grey squirrel is not. It will be very bad this winter. Thousands more red squirrels will die because of the virus. It is no way the fault of the grey squirrel which does no harm to the trees or the birds in my garden.

My Lords, I am not sure whether recent analysis and research supports the noble Lord's interpretation. I believe that Henry VIII felled oak trees to build ships. The red squirrel finds acorns a little hard to eat. He is a discerning fellow; he prefers well-hung hazelnuts. One of the problems is that grey squirrels are voracious eaters. They eat hazelnuts before they are ripe which prevents the red squirrels eating them. So there is a problem in the winter. There are other problems which must be addressed. Red squirrels prefer pines, Norwegian spruce and larch; grey squirrels prefer broadleaved trees. The drive we have at the moment to increase broadleaved planting in Great Britain will at the same time affect the success with which grey squirrels are able to survive.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of a most interesting debate last night in another place when this subject was gone into in considerable detail. A great deal of information was given. The noble Earl spoke about red squirrels in Scotland and the hope that we can save as many as possible. At the same time there seems to be a contradiction. In paragraph 10.5 of the UK action plan for biodiversity the red squirrel is listed among the subjects for special grants. In view of the fact that the SNH grant for 1996ā€“97 has been cut by 11 per cent., is the Minister satisfied that the essential work of helping to preserve the red squirrel will be funded properly?

My Lords, there are ample resources to produce the action required to safeguard the future of the red squirrel. The resources do not come just from one nature agency such as SNH, but from the Forestry Commission, woodland owners in the private sector and other sources. The partnership approach has been adopted in relation to the red squirrel. There is an organisation called Red Alert which draws together all the different initiatives. The funding of SNH has been decided upon the ground of the efficiencies which we know are possible in that organisation and upon the new priorities which are expected of that organisation. The species action plan is a priority which we are confident it can meet.

My Lords, in view of the misunderstanding among householders of the depredations caused by these tree rats and the fact that preservation societies are being set up to protect them, will the Government take action to try to publicise to everyone, particularly urban dwellers, just how much depredation these rats cause?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. The campaign being run by Red Alert is designed partially to educate and raise public awareness of the merits and otherwise of the grey squirrel. In addition, it is important that all woodland owners are aware of the need to control grey squirrels. They can do extensive damage to broadleaved trees. If they are not controlled the damage they can do to our countryside, landscapes and various habitats will also be extensive.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that he said that an inquiry is going on to see what effect grey squirrels are having on the survival of red squirrels? Does that mean that there is no proof that grey squirrels are driving out red squirrels? Secondly, with the poisoning of grey squirrels is account being taken of the damage that may be caused to other animals and birds which feed off the carcasses of those grey squirrels? Finally, is it the intentionā€”

Yes, you are going to have it whether you like it or not. You should know that by now. Finally, is it now the policy of Her Majesty's Government completely to exterminate the grey squirrel in every part of the UK?

My. Lords, there is strong circumstantial evidence that within 15 years of grey squirrels moving into a wood the red squirrels have moved out. We believe that that is due partially to the disease that grey squirrels carry from which red squirrels die. We believe that grey squirrels out-compete red squirrels for available food and so in the winter the grey squirrels are well fed while the red squirrels are badly fed. As regards Warfarin, the hoppers have been designed carefully so that other small mammals and birds cannot get at it. Even if another small mammal were to get at the Warfarin hopper or consumed a grey squirrel which had died from Warfarin, that small mammal would have to eat an extraordinary number of such grey squirrels even to be at risk of any damage.

My Lords, have my noble friend and the Government ever considered going back to the old wartime offers of so much money per grey squirrel tail to encourage farmers and other people on the land to help reduce the numbers?

My Lords, we have so many different initiatives in place around the country designed to deal with grey squirrel that the bounty on the grey squirrel's tail is not one we are considering at the moment.

My Lords, will the Minister answer my question as to whether it is government policy to exterminate the grey squirrel?

My Lords, it is obvious that the Government's policy with regard to biodiversity is to strike a balance. We want to secure the future of the red squirrel whose numbers and range have fallen against the fast-rising numbers of the grey squirrel. There are now 2.5 million grey squirrels in the UK. We believe that that is too many.