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Volume 698: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What impact studies are carried out prior to licences being given for the release of grey squirrels into the wild?

My Lords, in fulfilling its statutory role in licensing non-native releases under Section 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, Natural England assesses any actual or potential impact on native species and the environment. For example, before granting a licence to release grey squirrels, Natural England takes into account geographical information on the presence or likely presence of the red squirrel.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. In his reply to the Question on grey squirrels asked by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, on 23 January, he emphasised that only six squirrels have been released. However, is he aware of Joan Ruddock’s letter to Mr Adam Afriyie in another place on 18 December in which, as Minister with responsibility for policy in this area, she states that Natural England granted licences for 257 greys to be released in 2007? Releasing six grey squirrels is surely a very different thing from granting licences to release 257.

According to figures from Defra and the Forestry Commission, 257 breeding greys will produce about 1,800 squirrels in one year—about the same number as that managed by the employee whom I employ to kill squirrels in protecting SSSI woodland. So why in another place has the Minister with responsibility for policy in this area gone against the published views of Defra, Natural England, the Forestry Commission and our legal obligations under the Berne convention and the EU habitats and birds directives?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. When I answered the Question a couple of weeks ago, I answered the Question I had been asked about how many licences had been issued. I went on to talk about how many squirrels had actually been released. The two things are not necessarily the same. In 2006, for example, 147 squirrels were permitted to be released, but only six were released. The figure which the noble Lord gave on the number of licences issued does not necessarily represent the number of squirrels released under those licences. Natural England may not have allowed it for some reason. So there is probably no problem at all with the figures; one has to look at what one is asking. The latest year for which we have figures on releases of squirrels is 2006, and the figure is six, but more than six licences were issued.

My Lords, I wonder if any impact studies could have a special focus on the Isle of Wight, which is an exclusive and much cherished safe haven for the red squirrel? Any thought of releasing grey squirrels on the Isle of Wight might make the islanders rise up in rebellion. In asking this supplementary question, I should perhaps declare an interest as the owner of a border terrier which is allergic to all squirrels irrespective of colour.

My Lords, I wrote “Isle of Wight” on the front of my brief because, the last time I was asked about this, a noble Lord told me in the Corridor, “Next time, make sure you give a plug to the Isle of Wight”. So if anyone wants to see red squirrels, the Isle of Wight is the place to go. There are no greys on the Isle of Wight and, what is more, no greys are allowed. That is the reality.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Forestry Commission. I sympathise with the Minister’s view and hesitancy about taking action against red squirrels in most of the south of England. But in the north of England it is a different problem. Does he agree that we need to create buffer zones in the vicinity of the red squirrels so that they might survive? Has he had time to review my suggestion that no licences for the release of grey squirrels should be issued in the four northern counties, parts of north Yorkshire and the county of Lancaster?

My Lords, I think that my noble friend meant grey squirrels when he said red. However, with regard to what he asked me a couple of weeks ago, I can inform the House that Natural England and the Forestry Commission have looked into the matter, which is hardly surprising given that my noble friend is chairman of the Forestry Commission. Natural England has now decided to make a change on a precautionary basis and to increase the buffer zone around the nearby refuges in the north of England. The change will come into force immediately and any existing licences that cover that area will be reissued. I am grateful to my noble friend for asking the original question.

My Lords, the Minister will be happy to know, since Defra funds the project, that since this Question was last raised, in the past two and a half weeks, we have taken out—I refrain from using the word slaughter after the publicity last time—more than 1,200 squirrels. It is quite possible that Northumberland will be totally free of grey squirrels by the middle of the summer. In the light of this success, will he say whether Defra will review its policy on the eradication of grey squirrels in large parts of the country?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord: it seems that this is one area where Defra can really claim to be getting value for money in regards to wildlife. We are certainly happy to review that success. We need to build on it. However, since I last answered the Question, I have also discovered the famous Wild Boar Hotel at Crook near Windermere. It is doing very well in serving up grey squirrel canapés and pancakes.

My Lords, why are licences given at all for the release of these nasty little pests, which do enormous damage?

My Lords, they are released only on welfare grounds, and only six were released out of a population of 2 million. I think that that is not unreasonable. They are released only in areas where they are not a danger to songbirds, to forestry or to red squirrels, and welfare grounds are taken into account when licences are issued. As far as I know, there has been no adverse reaction to the release of those six.

My Lords, can the noble Lord say how many staff are employed in this business of issuing licences and performing the impact studies? In view of the reduction in staff that Defra is seeking, would it not be a good idea if the Government decided that squirrels are vermin and that they should not be saved under any circumstances, thereby saving a great deal of staffing in Defra?

My Lords, I do not know how many staff work on this, but it is minimal. Natural England is the operator of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and it is a non-departmental public body. It deals with all kinds of wildlife, both in licensing and in determining what action should be taken. Frankly, this probably adds up to a few paragraphs of work a day for someone. I repeat, however, that more licences are issued than squirrels released.