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Squirrels: Predation

Volume 686: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the finding in the report by the Songbird Survival trust that grey squirrels are one of the main predators of songbirds.

My Lords, there is some evidence that squirrels prey on woodland bird nests, but the true extent of any impact on the bird population is unknown. This issue is being looked at by the UK Woodland Bird Group, but it is difficult to design a study that would give a definitive answer.

My Lords, I am surprised by the Minister’s reply. The papers that I passed to him show that Professor Roy Brown has looked at more than 115 areas for up to 30 years and that, according to his research, mammal predation accounts for between one-third and three-quarters of all songbird predation losses. Therefore, having read Professor Brown’s report, does the Minister agree that it is clear that mammal predation is one of the most important factors in the decline of our songbirds? Will the Government put forward and fund their own research once they have got over the funding shortcomings that they have at present?

My Lords, it is not all the fault of squirrels; I would think that pesticides have something to do with this issue. We note the report that the Songbird Survival trust has produced and are grateful for its contribution to the debate. We would encourage the trust to share any unpublished evidence and research with the scientific community. Of the 15 species covered in the report by the trust, only three species were identified as being affected by grey squirrel predation: blackbirds, robins and whitethroats. These results are not consistent with the findings of the repeat woodland bird survey of 2005.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while there may be some dispute about the effect of grey squirrels on birds, there is no dispute about the effect of grey squirrels on our native red squirrels? Does he accept that the carrying of squirrel pox by the grey squirrel has wiped out most of our red squirrels, which are now found only in the far north of England and one or two isolated pockets? As a matter of urgency, will he ask his officials whether they will commission scientific research to try to discover a vaccine that would allow red squirrels to survive this terrible squirrel pox?

My Lords, we all want the red squirrel to survive over the grey squirrel. My noble friend is right to say that this has been a serious problem. It is all the fault of the import from America of the grey squirrel some time ago. The red squirrel is now found only in the north of England in 16 separate reserves, and of course on the Isle of Wight. No grey squirrels are on the island and, if any turn up, we will deal with them and they will not come back again. We have a plan to maintain the 16 areas in the north of England and the Isle of Wight as red squirrel reserves with 5-kilometre buffer zones where action is taken against the grey squirrel to protect food supplies and to protect against the other factors that lead to problems for the red squirrel.

My Lords, has Defra consulted the Forestry Commission over a plan to control grey squirrel numbers by using contraception instead of by humane killing? Is contraception still Defra’s preferred method of control?

My Lords, I asked about this yesterday because I had to have immunocontraceptives explained to me. I asked, “How do you know whether you are giving them to the boy grey squirrels or the girl grey squirrels?” I am told that it is a bit of a problem out in the wild. It is true that the Forestry Commission and Defra are collaborating to investigate the potential of such a vaccine, if I can call it that. If everything goes according to plan, it will be 10 years before a usable fertility control method is available for grey squirrels. I have to say that, as it has been for former Defra and MAFF Ministers, every vaccine that is meant to solve a problem is always 10 years away.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that grey squirrels can decimate oak trees? I planted some 300 oaks and virtually half of them have been destroyed. We are allowed to use only a very few of the poisons now available to try to deal with this problem.

My Lords, I am not knocking the grey squirrel, because it is very popular with people in urban areas. When the grey squirrel turns up in their gardens, they like it, so we have to be careful what we say about them. There are some very good public relations out there. But grey squirrels are not as nice to look at as the red ones—and I have seen only one red squirrel in my whole life. The fact is that grey squirrels cause incredible damage to forest trees. There are means to deal with them, as the Forestry Commission does. Equally, as people know when they plant their bulbs, if they are not careful the grey squirrel will dig them up within a few hours. While all this is annoying, we have no plan—I shall repeat this because I do not want any letters—we have no plan to eradicate grey squirrels.

My Lords, does the Minister accept the findings of the report to which my noble friend referred in the first Question as good evidence on the research side? The evidence falls into two parts, the first being the problem with regard to farmland and the other being the problem with regard to woodland birds themselves. What research is being done on both accounts?

My Lords, the last thing that I want to do is to knock the report by Songbird Survival, but the fact is, by implication from my first and second responses, we do not accept all the science in it. We have asked the trust to share any of its unpublished evidence with the scientific community. There is a problem here, but songbird populations are on the up. Since 1995, an increase of 6 per cent has been measured on the index of woodland birds, although the current level is only around 60 per cent of the 1970 figure. Nevertheless, as I say, it is on the up. We believe that the number of songbirds may have dropped to the bottom and is now starting to come up again. This is in part due to changes in farming practices. Over a six-year period in the 1980s and 1990s, farmers were paid to dig up the hedgerows. We lost 25 per cent of the hedgerows in this country, which is bound to have affected birdlife. Today we are paying farmers to put the hedges back again and we can see birdlife populations increase because of different, environmental farming practices.

My Lords, there is no question but that the grey squirrel does a lot of harm, and I cannot agree with my Front Bench about contraception. I think that a more practical way of controlling grey squirrels, one which does work, is to pay a substantial sum for every squirrel tail handed in.

My Lords, I have to say that that is a very old-fashioned approach. It did not work, it is not cost-effective or value for money, and as a policy it was abandoned in 1958.