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Woodland Cover Protection and Grey Squirrel Control

Volume 830: debated on Thursday 25 May 2023

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking (1) to promote and protect woodland cover, and (2) to control grey squirrels.

My Lords, I start by thanking noble Lords for taking part in this debate just before recess, when everybody is keen to get away. But the number of speakers, and the short time that each then has to speak, shows that a lot of people take this issue very seriously.

I must declare an interest: I am probably one of the few people left in England who has a population of red squirrels but, unfortunately, the grey squirrels are getting quite close. I am not sure how long we will be able to keep them out for.

I will end my speech with two asks of the Government—I am sure that neither will surprise the Minister—to do with grey squirrel control. But I will start on woodland. On an optimistic note, we have an increasing amount of woodland coverage in the country. However, this growth has been caused by increased plantations, mostly of pine, and the Woodland Trust has raised the issue of the falling biodiversity we have in the country because of the threat to our native plantations and a fall in the amount of native trees. The Government have set out plans to increase the amount of native woodland plantations; however, as we have been discussing on the formation of ELMS and other biodiversity schemes, it is very difficult to replant native woodland because of long-term issues. When the grant scheme runs out, how will we create the financial mechanisms to make sure that land taken away from agricultural purposes is maintained?

There are a number of threats to woodland at the moment. One of the main ones is disease. I know that other noble Lords will discuss this, so I will confine my comments to ash dieback. Through a survey of my woodland and from driving throughout Northumberland, I can see that ash dieback has spread throughout the county and that the ash tree will become extinct in the UK in five to 10 years. It is a pernicious disease, because trees still grow with it but, once they have the disease, it is only a matter of time before they die through stress.

I have started planting sycamore instead of ash, because it is fast-growing. I have never understood why people have views against sycamore, because it carries a great deal of biodiversity, but one problem is that grey squirrels particularly like killing sycamore through its bark.

Secondly, climate change brings about stress, especially in the droughts we are facing. Storm Arwen apparently took out 16 million trees and affected about 8,000 hectares of woodland. It did so much damage because the storm came from the north, but trees have grown root systems that stop westerly winds. I have been cutting up very old trees that survived storms in the past but have no root system to provide for storms from the north. This issue will occur more and more because of climate change.

The third issue is grey squirrels. I have spent a number of years battling grey squirrels and set up the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership. I originally wanted to call it the Grey Squirrel Annihilation League but, for PR reasons, that would apparently be a bad idea. I set up the partnership and managed to achieve a £150,000 grant from Defra. I was encouraged not to use the words “killing squirrels” in the application, so the application was actually for a farm diversification fund with a lot of columns saying, “What’s the output?” The only thing I could put was “dead squirrels”, so it was a rather odd form.

I managed to achieve the grant. There was a great deal of publicity about it when I got it. One way I managed to make it a popular issue was by pointing out that people eat squirrel, turning it from killing small fluffy animals into a foodie argument. The one thing people in Britain will not argue with is foodies. However, I pointed out in some interviews that if squirrels are to be sold by butchers there must be a sticker saying “May contain nuts”. I did that as a joke, but—

Well, there is a danger of anaphylactic shock from a creature whose main food source is nuts.

We did this work through trapping. I had a fantastic Geordie, Mr Paul Parker, who knew more about grey squirrels than anybody at the end of the period. He was extremely successful. However, trapping is incredibly labour-intensive. We started off with live trapping and then moved to kill traps. You have to check the traps once a day to make sure that squirrels have not been trapped and are still alive. We expanded throughout Northumberland. At one point we had 900 trapping sites and over 200 volunteers, mostly elderly pensioners who would look out of the window and tell us when the traps had gone off.

There was an enormous support for this, and we did clear areas of grey squirrels. We could tell that we had done so because red squirrels recolonised areas that had been colonised by greys. Grey squirrels are larger than red squirrels and push them out of areas, so if you have reds it is a clear indicator that you do not have greys.

The problem we face is that there are about 2.7 million grey squirrels in this country. Trapping could be effective, but it is a landscape issue. You have to work incredibly hard at it. Some squirrels were breeding up to four times a year. We caught pregnant grey squirrels in December and January. The number of squirrels that can repopulate an area if you do not manage to completely clear a population is amazing.

Although trapping is very useful in a localised area, we have to look at other methods in the long term. The problem is that, with 2.7 million squirrels, we are looking at the landscape changing in the long term, because tree cover will change. As the Minister pointed out about planting, certain types of tree will not survive past 20 or 30 years—we will not see those mature trees.

The bright spot is that two new technologies are coming forward. The first is contraception. I know that this has been pushed by a number of organisations that are part of the UK Squirrel Accord. The work on that is excellent. The real value of it is that, unlike trapping, where you have to monitor traps continuously, you could provide the contraceptive over two or three days, three times a year, which would have a massive effect and could crash squirrel numbers. That work is very important. One of my first asks of the Minister is that I hope Defra will come up with some more funding to push this process further, because it looks like the technology works very well. It is now a question of making sure it goes forward and can be distributed.

I am particularly excited about the second technology, which is being pushed by the European Squirrel Initiative, which is gene drive technology. I was told that I had to be very careful about the use of terminology, because it is not gene editing; it is a form of bioengineering whereby the squirrels’ reproductive cycle can be changed so that the squirrels introduced into the population breed only one sex. Therefore, you can change it so that only male squirrels are born. Of course, the lack of females will have an effect on the population. The work we did in Northumberland showed that squirrels are remarkably territorial. Therefore, squirrels that do not breed are far stronger than squirrels that do, and will push squirrels that can breed further out of the best population areas. This is an amazing piece of work that will take about eight to 10 years to perfect and then, of course, probably another eight to 10 years.

What is amazing about this technology is that in theory we could wipe grey squirrels from the country in a humane way without killing any, doing so in a safe way because the editing could have a cut-off point so that, after a number of generations, you would have to reintroduce the control. That would be a fabulous outcome, but it will need quite a lot of research. I know that the Minister has met Professor Bruce Whitelaw from the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. My second ask is exactly the same as my first. This could be fabulous if the money were available and that is an issue for Defra. However, squirrels are costing us many millions of pounds a year and this would be an excellent return on investment.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for initiating this important debate.

If we want to promote and protect our woodlands, we need to get much better at forestry in this country. I have said many times that we are overall pretty bad at it. Most of our woodlands are in poor condition and not managed to the proper standard. Our foresters need much better training, especially for continuous cover, which is something that I have been promoting in this House for over 50 years—I hope that its time has come.

The control of grey squirrels should be grant funded, given their impact on the delivery of key ecosystems and services such as carbon sequestration budgets and biodiversity, as well as the loss of timbers. However, grey squirrels are not the only problem and I want to focus on some of the others.

Forestry is not easy. It is easy to say, “Let’s plant more trees”, but it is a jolly sight more difficult to do that in reality. Besides grey squirrels, there are deer and, of our six species, every single one is destructive. At over 1.5 billion deer, there are far too many in this country. They cause an estimated 74,000 car accidents a year, costing £10 million in car repairs alone. Deer kill about 20 people a year and there has been no decline in human injuries in the last 20 years. The sadness is that any deer involved in a car accident will probably die a long, lingering death well away from the scene of the accident.

Those are not all the problems; there are others. I have a list of at least 25 pests or diseases, either in this country or on our doorstep, attacking every single one of our native trees: oak, ash, birch, chestnut, spruce, pine—the list could go on. In fact, one could get quite depressed about forestry, but one needs to look at it more positively.

I turn to hedgerows. I plead with the Minister to include hedgerows in the ambit of woodland. Hedgerows absorb 30 to 80 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare. The Government need to encourage farmers to have taller and wider hedgerows. The Game, Wildlife and Conservation Trust estimates that, if a farmer planted a tree every 20 metres in half the hedgerows in this country, we would plant another 14 million new trees. Farmers need to be encouraged but also their tenancies need to be looked at, because by and large with tenancies any timber is reserved to the landlord.

Those would be amenity trees but I also have a concern about commercial timber. We have a conflict between the area where commercial timber can be grown and where ground-nesting birds are, particularly species on the red list such as curlew and black grouse. Science has clearly told us that there is an increase of predation for any ground-nesting bird within woodland. It is not only about predation; there is fragmentation of the breeding sites as we plant more and more timber. As I said about chalk streams, it is about a balance in the environment. The Minister has a heck of a job to keep everyone happy, because there will always be at least one NGO that will complain.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register, in particular as chair of the UK Squirrel Accord. I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on his excellent introduction and on getting this debate at an important time in what is going on in the world of trees and squirrels.

On Monday, the Minister said,

“you cannot have net zero without talking about trees”.—[Official Report, 22/5/23; col. 598.]

That was a prescient thing to say in view of the debate that we are having today. Indeed, many sources have concluded what the UK Squirrel Accord knows to be true: the biggest threat to our broadleaf woodlands is the grey squirrel, ring-barking as they do trees aged between 10 and 40 years and effectively killing them.

The UK Squirrel Accord is the coming together of 45 organisations of the United Kingdom to address this unpleasant truth, comprising the four Governments, their nature agencies, the main voluntary sector bodies and the principal private sector players. The accord has not only ensured good communication among the member bodies but allowed scientific research to be commissioned together. Quite a lot has been achieved in laying the groundwork for a major initiative in reducing the number of grey squirrels, in large part through the use of fertility control.

This exciting research is being led at the Animal and Plant Health Agency—APHA—and includes strands on the fertility control substance, the hoppers that contain it and, most important, the rigorous computer modelling that underpins the rollout strategy. The research phase is approaching its fifth and final year, which will give way to the landscape trials phase and then a licensing phase before the rollout. The Minister has ministerial responsibility for APHA. The Defra family and APHA have been very helpful and involved in the accord. Does the Minister agree that this fertility control research represents the outstanding near-term option as a key weapon for grey squirrel control?

The APHA research has been funded in part by the Defra family, but just over £1 million has been raised from private UK individuals and trusts. I thank those people very much. There have been some really generous people and they have brought with them a lot of knowledge and the ability for us to do the large-scale field trials when the time comes. I hope that it is not ungrateful to the Minister, who is such a good supporter of ours, to observe that larger sums of government money are being spent in other areas of disease and invasive alien species. Given the central need to deal with this issue for net-zero reasons alone, I urge the Government to consider upping the resource that they devote to this issue.

There are two areas where the Government can help. The first is the cost of the licensing process that we are about to undergo, for both the hoppers and the substances that will be left behind in them, and the second is increasing the co-ordinating resource that the UK Squirrel Accord has available for the next phases. We have been well resourced in people and in monetary terms up to now, thanks to generosity and the 45 organisations, but there will be a step change in what we need to do going forward and this needs more bodies. It will take a lot of effort to deal with further planning and the engagement and education of everyone up and down the country and there will be many other issues as well. If we have more bodies now, we will make a better job of it. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that.

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition, although I am not speaking on its behalf today. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. I seem to remember that we have debated these issues before and I have always been grateful for his contributions.

There are many reasons why increasing our woodland cover is important. For example, being able to walk in woodlands is associated with mental health, at a time when this is a huge issue for us as a society; it is clearly deeply bedded into the issues of net zero; and it is intimately associated with the need to increase again our biodiversity. It is of inestimable importance.

The threat posed by grey squirrels is therefore an issue that exercises many of us, along with the longing that we might one day be able to reintroduce red squirrels. I have to say that the problem is not just grey squirrels; in North Hertfordshire we have black squirrels. I do not know if the Committee has come across them but they are breeding across both North Hertfordshire and South Cambridgeshire, and are a feature of our local area in my diocese. Sadly, there are now only a few conservation areas for red squirrels left, as we have heard, following the introduction of the grey squirrel in the 18th century and indeed the wider issue of the reduction in woodland.

The damage caused by grey squirrels is huge. According to government statistics, the total cost of grey squirrels and other invasive species to the UK is about £1.8 billion a year. That figure perhaps puts into perspective some of the pleas about whether we may be able to find some modest funding to help with this important work.

Stripping off the bark of broadleaf trees means that we lose much of our woodland. A recent report by the Royal Forestry Society on the damage caused by grey squirrels estimates that they cost about £37 million a year to forestry, and they are identified as the greatest single threat to broadleaf trees in the UK. I have been grateful to hear about the project—others know more about this than I do—by the Animal and Plant Health Agency to develop an oral contraceptive to target the grey squirrel, and about the work that the Government have been doing with the Roslin Institute and the European Squirrel Initiative to breed infertility into the female grey squirrel population. Can Minister give us an update on those projects, particularly what the prospects are for rolling them out more widely and an indication of the timeframe?

The need to increase our woodland cover, in the light of the falls over recent centuries, is clear. There are other reasons too. Increasing biodiversity is really important, and I find that that now overlaps with some other areas that I have worked in. We are trying to deal with some very difficult problems of bat infestations in churches, partly because so many of our farm buildings have been put out of action for bats but also because much of the tree cover where some of them have lived in the past has been lost. That is causing irreparable damage to many of our historic churches and their contents. We need to find a number of solutions, of which increasing woodland cover is a very long-term aim but part of the solution.

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale: first, on his initiating the debate; secondly, on a really interesting speech; and, thirdly, on his work, which we have discussed in the past, of controlling grey squirrels—work that is not yet over.

I declare an interest: I have a farm in Leicestershire on which I plant a lot of trees. I really farm for conservation—for conservation subsidy, probably—but the birdlife has improved dramatically through planting trees and hedges and through various other features, including diminishing the magpie population.

I have been interested in squirrels for a very long time. In our family, when my son was little, he used to refer to “squeals”, so that is what we always call them—I think that is rather a nice name for them. The ones that we see are always grey. I found one on the road when I was bicycling home one night, when I was about 15, which I imaginatively called Cyril. It then escaped. I took another one from a dray—I think I imaginatively called him Cyril as well—and took him up to my rooms in my college in Oxford, where he ran up and down the curtains and frightened the people making the beds. He was sweet until he started biting me.

My father used to call squirrels “tree rats”, and I have to say that, notwithstanding having kept two as pets, that is what they are. Back when I was a boy, and I am one of the oldest people here, you used to get a shilling for a tail, as I recall. I do not know when that finished; perhaps the Minister might tell me.

I have eaten squirrel. Actually, it was quite good. I recommend it on salad on brioche, although it is a bit of a pain to skin. The original Brunswick pie was from New Brunswick, where they put squirrel in it, and that is where they come from.

As I have said, I have been planting trees—some 10 acres or so—on the farm. On one two-acre plot alone, the damage done by squirrels has to be seen to be believed. I should think they have killed one in three trees by ring-barking, and they have damaged a lot of others. If anybody wants to see it, you can see the damage they have done—it is just shocking.

Owen Paterson, when he was Secretary of State for Defra, recommended to me something called a Kania 2000 trap. I strongly recommend it. Unfortunately, they are out of production for some reason—I think they came from Canada—but I hope they will start to be produced again, because they really work. To illustrate my point, in that two-acre plot, this year on one tree alone I have caught 14 squirrels. You never see them, so where do they all come from? I think I have thinned them out, but they will of course be back. That was in a six-week period. These are very good traps; I recommend them.

We all agree that squirrels need huge control. I think they need “annihilation”, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. It would be excellent if we managed to clear them out of the whole country, as they are an alien species. We need concerted action; I know the Minister is going to tell us in his speech about the concerted action we are going to have. Whatever campaign he runs, be it poison—I can see the disadvantages of that—or some form of contraceptive or gene-editing, it will be fantastic. However, if we are to have contraception spread widely, what effect will it have if you eat the squirrel? Perhaps the Minister might let me know the answer to that as well. It is not too worrying for me, at my age, but for younger people it might be. The point is that if we do not have a serious campaign to defeat these squirrels, as has been mentioned already, the government ambition to plant many more trees in this country will fail.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for initiating this timely debate.

First, I thank the Government for introducing and improving a variety of grant schemes, including funding important maintenance for new woodland over 10 years. However, this funding is constrained by the lack of adequate resources for the processing and approval of planting applications, which delays the rollout ofusb woodland creation. There has been an unfortunate side effect on tree nurseries explicitly encouraged by further government support following the Government’s response to the EFRA 2022 report on tree planting. Nurseries have been restricted in the sale of their products by the slow pace of government approvals of new woodland creation. I am most interested to hear the Minister’s response to the question of the availability of manpower resources in his ministry to process these applications.

My second major concern is the effect of the sale of carbon credits on the type of new woodland planted and its location. In East Anglia, considerable prime farmland has been bought up or rented at substantial premiums by investors outside the agriculture and forestry industries for the sole purpose of enjoying carbon credits. The favoured tree is the fast-growing paulownia, or foxglove tree, normally grown in our gardens for either its flower or huge leaves. There is no traditional commercial market for this wood in the UK and it is unsuitable for biomass. Paulownia scarcely meets the recommendation of the Woodland Trust to plant native trees and shrubs. It also fails to accord with the Government’s environmental improvement plan and efforts to reverse the decline of species and wildlife habitats. From the point of view of the Government and the Forestry Commission meeting targets on woodland expansion, this is an easy win, but in establishing appropriate woodland species on suitable land, it is a disaster. Could the Minister explain why this has been allowed to happen, and what can be done to stop the abuse of a sensible long-term government policy to increase woodland using appropriate species on appropriate land?

Thirdly, I come to the establishment of new woodland and the control of vermin. Others have dealt with the squirrel problem and, to a certain extent, measures to control deer, but in my own woodland I am finding it increasingly difficult to find people to shoot the deer due to the dangers posed by increasing public access. If an incoming Government introduced a right to roam, vermin control would be even more difficult, leaving aside the adverse effects of such a freedom on other wildlife that we wish to encourage.

For the prevention of deer damage, I also ask the Minister to review the encouragement of using expensive tree guards on ex-farmland—they blow over, take for ever to biodegrade and look like cemeteries—rather than using fencing, which can be less expensive, more effective and easier to manage.

My Lords, I declare my interest, as in the register, as an owner and trustee of woodlands. I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on securing this important debate.

The Government have an ambitious target to promote new woodland planting—all very laudable, albeit currently unrealistic in terms of the numbers forecast—and have made this a keystone of ELMS. What does not seem to attract sufficient government attention, however, is the ongoing maintenance of existing woodland. Rather than having overmature woodland and unmanaged plantations going back and, in so doing, failing to maximise their carbon sequestration potential, the Government should be encouraging much more effective woodland management plans for both thinning and coppicing. A more efficient and vibrant carbon trading market can develop as an additional benefit off the back of this. I have mentioned this to my good friend the Minister in the past and I ask him to look at it again.

I am old enough to remember the issues that farming faced with rabbits before the introduction of that man-manufactured disease myxomatosis. While I do not wish the introduction of a similar disgusting cure to be foisted on the grey squirrel population, the scale of the problem is similar and we need to find a solution that is as radical in its outcome. Both are invasive alien species after all: the rabbit was introduced by the Romans and the grey squirrel by misguided owners of country estates in the 19th century.

Control used to take the form of poisoning, trapping and shooting. The first is now problematic, the second is labour-intensive at a time when labour is in particularly short supply and the third is haphazard. Poking dreys in the spring with aluminium poles also requires a supply of fit men and is no work for the faint-hearted. It is also a filthy occupation if the dreys land on your head.

We need to fall back on another solution, which is now present in the form of oral contraception by means of a fertility control vaccine being researched by the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, to which I am pleased that the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, referred. I take this opportunity to congratulate him on all the work he has been doing in this area. I have contributed to this excellent cause financially, and I urge as many people as are able to—certainly all woodland owners—to contribute too. Combined with traditional means of control, it will provide the opportunity to reduce numbers of grey squirrels to something acceptable.

Why is there a need for this? I have been looking at the damage wrought by grey squirrels on a three year-old chestnut coppice and a beautiful cover of young hornbeam. Last summer’s drought seemed to make the grey squirrel population even more vigorous than usual, and I estimate that, of the damaged and barked shoots on each stool, only 10% are showing any signs of regrowth—a dramatic reduction in both the commercial volume and the value of the crop. Am I becoming increasingly paranoid about grey squirrel vigour, reflecting something referred to earlier? They seem to be getting smaller in size yet are reproducing over a longer time span throughout the year. It is no coincidence that squirrel numbers are increasing alongside decreasing woodland bird numbers, given their liking for birds’ eggs.

With the current level of threat from the grey squirrel population, what choices should be made by woodland owners seeking to plant if the monoculture of softwoods is not on their agenda? Perhaps the Minister could indicate how he thinks the planting of oak and beech can prosper without controlling the squirrel population. Where does this fit within the yet to be updated 2014 grey squirrel action plan? While we are about it, is there a deer action plan waiting in the wings?

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Redesdale on securing this debate and on his detailed introduction to it. I was fascinated by the idea of gene drive technology.

The promotion and protection of our native woodland cover is vital to maintain and improve the country’s biodiversity. In March 2022, the UK’s total woodland cover was estimated at 3.24 million hectares, which is 13% of the total UK land area. During 2021-22, 14,000 hectares of new woodland were created, but although woodland is gradually increasing, woodland wildlife is decreasing. The enthusiasm for planting fast-growing firs and pines as a cash crop has led to silent forests and woodland walkways. The loss of ancient trees has hastened the loss of wildlife that used to inhabit the woods. Existing native woodlands are isolated and in poor ecological condition. Disease is also a significant factor.

Non-native invasive trees and shrubs, such as rhododendron, have grown at a prolific rate, taking over the space that used to be inhabited by our native shrubs. The Minister will know that, as a member of the land use commission, I am in favour of a land use strategy, which would clearly delineate where it was important for native tree species to be protected and new saplings to be planted. We need a lot more tree cover, but it has to be the right trees in the right place.

Trees, however hardy, are under attack not just from disease and cash crops but from the other invasive species: the grey squirrel. Grey squirrels are an extremely successful invasive species, systematically destroying trees that were previously the home of the native red squirrel. Wherever the grey squirrel goes, it eventually reduces the number of red squirrels. There are several reasons for this. The grey is a carrier of squirrel pox, to which it has some immunity—not so the unlucky red squirrel. Squirrel pox is easily passed from the grey to the red, resulting in a reduction in numbers.

The grey squirrel is more successful in adapting to a changing habitat. Sitka spruce plantations are an unfavourable habitat for the red squirrel, which find that the areas where they can exist are diminishing. They are pushed into smaller areas of our countryside.

In 2014, the Government published a grey squirrel action plan, which has been referred to. This is now nearly 10 years old. Under the Countryside Stewardship scheme in this plan, landowners can be provided with financial support for controlling grey squirrels. There is apparently a new grey squirrel action plan, but it has yet to be published. Can the Minister say when this might happen?

On 24 March this year, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at Defra said, in answer to a Written Question, that

“Defra has provided £300,000, to support research and development of fertility control methods to reduce numbers of grey squirrels”.

Can the Minister say whether this is effective? Many noble Lords have asked about this.

The UK Squirrel Accord—a partnership of over 40 organisations—seeks to secure and expand red squirrel populations through the red squirrel action plan. Let us hope that the two plans together will have the desired effect of reducing greys, increasing the number of reds and assisting damaged trees to recover.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for initiating this debate to explore how we can protect and promote woodland cover, as well as control the grey squirrel population—although also now the black squirrel population. I am aware that the noble Lord has been closely associated with these issues for many years. We live in a green and pleasant land—at least, I believe we would all like to—which is why we are here to debate such an important issue for our natural and domestic environment.

The UK has a disappointing record, over generations, in preserving our historic and native woodlands, although that is improving. Only 13% of our great country has forest cover. This compares somewhat unfavourably to a global average of 31%. In France it is 32%, in Germany 33% and in Spain 37%. However, these figures alone do not tell us the full challenge that we face to rebuild our woodlands, because it is not just about the volume of trees that we have but the quality of what has been planted and the effect it is having on our immediate environment. The Woodland Trust has estimated that, since 1999, we have lost nearly 1,000 ancient woodlands and a further thousand are still under threat.

This is compounded by the planting of non-native species, which may be beautiful—at least, I consider them to be—but are doing little to support woodland wildlife. In fact, according to the RSPB, since 1970 the woodland bird index has declined by a quarter and the woodland specialist bird index has fallen by 45%. As noble Lords will be aware, these statistics will reflect similar figures for all woodland wildlife as they are subject to the same environmental impacts.

This is therefore an environmental crisis, and one that is not helped by the presence of so many grey squirrels in our delicate ecosystem, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, so ably highlighted. Grey squirrels have done significant damage to our native woodlands by their bark-stripping activities and are threatening the very survival of some of our most cherished tree species, not least the beech tree.

No one participating in this debate needs convincing that more has to be done to rebuild our natural woodlands and to enhance our domestic forest cover, but we need some clarity from the Minister. Can he assist us by providing responses to the following questions?

In 2021, the Government published the England Trees Action Plan 2021 to 2024. We are now half way through the time allotted by the Government to reach their target of planting 30,000 hectares of woodland per year. Can the Minister outline how much of the £500 million budget has been spent and when the Government expect to reach their goal of 30,000 hectares per year? Can the Minister also provide us with a date for when the much-promised new grey squirrel action plan will be published, and which funding pots will be linked to it to ensure its effective implementation?

Earlier this month, the Government confirmed that a new rare species survival fund would be launched soon and would provide support for red squirrels. Can the Minister inform the Committee what the Government mean by “soon” and when we should expect it?

There are few things more beautiful than the British countryside. Each one of us will have a favourite tree, a favourite walk or a favourite view. The onus is on each and every one of us to protect and enhance what we have, but to do so we need support and clear direction. I hope that the Minister can assist today.

My Lords, I refer the Committee to my entry in the register. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, who has called this debate at a timely moment and speaks from rare and real knowledge of the problem.

This debate is about promoting and protecting our woodland cover but also about controlling grey squirrels—so it is also about saving the red squirrel. Sitting in this Room are three red squirrel heroes of mine. The first is the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, who I have been talking to about this subject for well over a decade. He alluded to the knowledge gained through the red squirrel protection partnership, and I suspect he knows at least as much as the Geordie friend he referred to about how the squirrel behaves and how to control it effectively. My second hero is the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, because of his wonderful stewardship of the UK Squirrel Accord and his involvement in this issue. Both those noble Lords have a gentle way of lobbying, but anyone would be foolish if they took that to be a lack of determination. They are both extremely passionate and determined about this issue, and extremely effective in changing policy and making sure that we are doing the right things. The noble Earl is right: we need more funding in the next spending round, and it is an absolute priority for me to make sure that we get the level of funding we want to roll forward these new ideas, which I shall come on to talk about.

The third of my red squirrel heroes is the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, my predecessor in this role. He sits in an absolutely bipartisan position in our proceedings today, but I know of his passion in this role and he is the voice in my head on many of these issues. I thank him for all the work he has done on this subject—I hope that we have noted the tie he is wearing.

Beyond this Committee are a great many more red squirrel heroes of mine. The scientists at APHA have been referred to. Those carrying out immunocontraception work in York are extraordinary, very passionate and gifted people. I want also to mention the team I have at Defra, who are bringing forward the grey squirrel action plan which will be published soon—this summer, I hope. That will show that there is real ambition to tackle this and to use the new technologies that are coming forward.

The other heroes in this piece are land managers, who are tackling the problem—people who are putting in resources of their own because they love the natural world and respect the natural capital for which they are responsible—and those who work for them, particularly gamekeepers, who are often wrongly attacked but who do much to protect our biodiversity and reverse its decline. They are certainly the people who have the skill, the knowledge and the will to tackle the difficult issue of predation control, as well as pest control.

Your Lordships are aware that our tree-planting ambitions are to have 16.5% of England under tree cover by 2050. That is a target in the Environment Act. We want to increase our tree cover by an area the size of Cheshire. That is 7,000 hectares a year by the end of this Parliament, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson. In answer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, we want to cut in half the time it takes to put in place the relevant permissions and grants to plant trees. We want to give land managers more understanding about where they will be allowed to plant trees. As my noble friend Lord Caithness said, we do not want to see trees planted on areas where rare waders are nesting, but it is really important to help people make those decisions.

The England Trees Action Plan 2021 to 2024 and the Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 contain this desire to boost tree planting, improve woodland management and support a thriving green economy in our trees and woodlands. All this will be done mainly through our £650 million nature for climate fund. Today, around 42% of our woods are not actively managed, a point made by my noble friend Lord Colgrain. Many of the Government’s actions to plant new woodlands need to be balanced by action to improve existing woodlands, because that is where we are locking up carbon, helping our target to reverse species loss and improving our timber security as we bring those woodlands into production. It is there that we are providing more space for people to be close to nature to heal us, as the right reverend Prelate so eloquently put it, and to enhance our landscapes. We get a spiritual uplift from being in and close to nature.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, talked about types of trees. We need to see the right trees planted in the right place. I always slightly chide the Woodland Trust and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, who chairs that wonderful organisation. I am a great fan of it, but it is very blinkered in wanting just native trees. At a time when we are plagued by pests and diseases, and with the threat of climate change, adaptation means that we have to be broader in the species we plant, and we have to be resilient in the species we find to tackle it.

A number of noble Lords talked about deer. This summer we will publish our deer strategy, which will look at this issue from both ends of the telescope. It will not just deal with the problem on the ground from the damage caused but look at where we can create markets. This is a cholesterol-free meat. There are half a million too many deer out there, and if we do not get on top of it the number will be 750,000 before we know it. Wonderful organisations such as the Country Food Trust are looking at creating hubs, with government support, so that we can get deer to a quantity where people who procure for the public and private sectors can get the quality and quantity of deer they want and get it into our prisons, Armed Forces, NHS and other organisations. We are getting a pull factor as well as a push factor to tackle the terrible problem of too many deer in our countryside.

On hedgerows, I say to the noble Earl that I am hugely impressed by what the Crown Estate is doing across its land, which it farms both in-hand and, mainly, with tenants. It is planting precisely the sort of hedgerows that we need. We are about to publish more about our hedgerow standard, and I think the noble Earl will be pleased when he sees that.

However, all this ambition for restoration of nature, increasing timber security and achieving our net-zero ambitions will fail if we do not protect the woodlands we have from pests and diseases. Taxpayers’ money will be wasted, nature will be depleted and we will have a view of abject failure of successive Governments who were not prepared to take the tough choices that needed to be taken to tackle pests and diseases. Those will be our failures if we do not tackle pests such as the grey squirrel.

Recollections about this vary, but I understand that the first grey squirrel was introduced in 1876 by a banker called Thomas U Brocklehurst, at Henbury Hall, near Macclesfield. Further releases happened throughout the Victorian era and into the Edwardian era. In 1905-07, 91 were released in the Regent’s Park. The right reverend Prelate is here, so I will be careful with the words I use, but I hope that there is a hot corner of hell for the eccentrics who visited this gross act of environmental vandalism on us. It is now up to us to see if we can reverse it.

The problem is that one or two land managers can do their bit to control grey squirrels in a landscape but, if they stop or their neighbours do not play their part, the grey squirrels win and nature loses. As has been said, the way to deal with this is across a landscape—a catchment, a range of hills or a peninsula. We need to work with the topography of nature and work out how we are going to do this. The noble Lord who instigated the debate understands this, and we need to use the skills and knowledge of him and others in developing this plan.

The grey squirrel action plan, shortly to be published in its refreshed form, will set out the many incentives for action that we will provide. The countryside stewardship payments include an incentive, on a hectarage basis, to control squirrels. The UK Squirrel Accord will be supported to build on the £1 million it has used to explore innovative methods of control.

Immunocontraception is a game-changer: it fills a gap where there has been either a lack of skill or a lack of will to kill grey squirrels. The APHA has successfully identified an oral contraceptive vaccine, which is being tested. It has designed a feeder that will ensure that only free-living grey squirrels will access the contraceptive. The results of field trials showed that these feeders can deliver this game-changing solution, but there is more work to do. I assure the noble Lord that there will be no reticence among Ministers in making sure that the licensing of all aspects of this solution allow its delivery to be rolled out as quickly and cheaply as possible, and will not impair the ability to deliver what I think will be an absolute game-changer.

Other noble Lords referred to CRISPR gene-editing, which may provide another means to limit the population growth of grey squirrels. This is potentially massive. We are monitoring developments closely with colleagues from the research and woodlands management communities. The Forestry Commission is working with the Roslin Institute, which is part of Edinburgh University, to fund a PhD to understand how a gene drive approach might be used to manage grey squirrel populations in the future. I cannot add to what has been said about this, but it presents the possibility of a real solution.

What is the prize if we get this right? The prize is woodlands that survive and, in many cases, thrive. The other day, I was in a woodland of 44 acres, which was planted by my father as a woodland grant scheme, with free public access. There were thousands of oak trees, none of which will get any higher than this Room or support the 2,000 species that exist in the iconic mature oaks that we all love. That is because of squirrel damage. Biodiversity benefits are also a prize. Red squirrel numbers will stabilise and their range will increase. Everyone, not just those who are concerned about timber production, needs to be part of this great endeavour.

“Iconic” is an overused word, but the red squirrel is emblematic of our fight to restore nature across this country—it is on the front of our environmental improvement plan. If we succeed in encouraging red squirrels, we succeed across so much of our threatened natural capital. I hope to live until the day when I can walk through St James’s Park and not grind my teeth because I see a tourist feeding a squirrel; I would be delighted if they were feeding a red squirrel.

Sitting suspended.