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Grey Squirrels

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2023

I will call Virginia Crosbie to move the motion and then the Minister will respond. As is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up the debate. I call Virginia Crosbie.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered control of the grey squirrel population.

Thank you, Mr Vickers, for the opportunity to hold this important debate on control of the squirrel population. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison)—a fellow atomic kitten. It was while we were visiting nuclear reactors in Finland recently that we discussed this important debate.

In the 1909 poem “An Appointment” by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, he described the red squirrel as “proud” and “wayward”, bounding and springing around the trees with a

“fierce tooth and cleanly limb”.

He finished by saying:

“No government appointed him.”

Just two years after he wrote those words, American grey squirrels were introduced to Ireland and, as has been the case across much of the UK, this hardier and more aggressive species took over, pushing the red squirrel out and threatening its very existence. Although no Government appointed the red squirrel in Yeats’s poem, it is clearly up to our Government to reappoint red squirrels, a much-loved native species, to their natural homes. Grey squirrels are a menace to British biodiversity. They have proven perilous for our native red squirrel population.

The Ards Red Squirrel Group is full of fantastic volunteers who work tirelessly to protect the future of the red squirrel in my constituency of Strangford, particularly at Mount Stewart. The organisation is led by the National Trust Mount Stewart ranger team, and they are in constant contact with local landowners to monitor red squirrels and eradicate any greys that venture in. Indeed, the issue is the very presence of grey squirrels; grey squirrels are the Hamas of the squirrel world. Does the hon. Member agree that there should be greater integration between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and local red squirrel groups in the devolved institutions to ensure that they have the means necessary to preserve and expand the red squirrel species throughout Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He is a keen advocate not only for his constituents, but for the red squirrel population. I particularly thank him for drawing attention to those who work so hard on this issue. He mentions co-operation with DEFRA on red squirrels. It is absolutely key to all aspects of biodiversity that we see such co-operation.

In the UK, there are now an estimated 280,000 red squirrels. That is just 10% of the grey squirrel population. I am fortunate that many of those red squirrels reside on my island constituency of Ynys Môn in north Wales, which has been grey squirrel free since 2016. An estimated 60% of the Welsh red squirrel population thrive in woodlands such as the Dingle in Llangefni, Penrhos on Ynys Gybi, Newborough forest and the National Trust’s Plas Newydd. I was thrilled to be invited by Dr Rajkumari Jones to become an honorary member of the Red Squirrels Trust Wales, and to be shown around Pentraeth forest by red squirrel champions Rob Macaulay and Dr Craig Shuttleworth.

In 2018, a review of the population and conservation status of British mammals noted a significant decline in UK red squirrel populations over the preceding two decades everywhere except Scotland. The report identified that the decline was due to diseases such as squirrel pox and adenovirus; competition with grey squirrels for resources; deterioration in habitat quality; and a failure to implement effective measures to control grey squirrel populations. Grey squirrels cause millions of pounds-worth of damage to our woodlands by gnawing the bark off trees. That can lead to the loss of particularly vulnerable tree species, such as beech. That in turn creates a decline in the fungi and invertebrates reliant on those trees. In some cases, the damage caused by grey squirrels reduces the value of timber to the extent of disincentivising investment in the creation of new woodlands. The estimated annual cost of grey squirrel damage to trees is £37 million, and the estimated cost to the whole economy of grey squirrels is £1.8 billion.

This Government have taken steps to control the grey squirrel population and protect red squirrels. As we have seen, the Environment Act 2021 includes a legally binding target to halt species decline by 2030. The England trees action plan, published in May 2021, states that we will act now to build resilience in our woodlands by improving the management of grey squirrels, including by updating the grey squirrel action plan. We are now two years on from the Environment Act and 30 months on from the England trees action plan, but the updated grey squirrel action plan has yet to hit our bookshelves. The current plan provides advice to landowners on controlling grey squirrel populations on their land. Provision is also made for countryside stewardship grants to help landowners control the squirrel population.

I was pleased to see that the promised species survival fund was launched earlier this year, and look forward to red squirrel projects receiving support when the results are announced. The Government recognise that this issue is bigger than just giving grants to landowners. To achieve our 2030 target and our 2042 ambition to grow native species populations by 10%, we need focused, sustainable and joined-up action, and we need it soon.

Let us consider the various ways that the targets can be met. The first is through the traditional methods of grants to landowners, to support trapping and shooting of grey squirrels. Although that is effective, it is not always expedient. The Forestry Commission squirrel control plan reminds us that

“the time required to cull high-level populations must not be underestimated, nor should the total period over which a high culling effort will be required”


“even after populations are reduced, the time to sustain lower population levels can remain as high as it was previously, despite fewer animals being culled.”

Put simply, squirrel migration may simply displace the problem, and smaller populations are harder to hit. Trapping and shooting are also unpalatable to many people, and there are other more effective methods that need to be considered. I recommend the excellent report “Saving the Red Squirrel: Landscape Scale Recovery,” edited by Bangor University’s Craig Shuttleworth, along with Nikki Robinson of the Red Squirrels Trust Wales and Peter Lurz from Edinburgh University. Its production was supported by my local authority, Anglesey County Council.

That publication looks at alternatives in depth, and I would like to highlight some of the proposals reviewed. One is the reintroduction of pine martens as a method of biocontrol. Those native creatures have been largely extinct in England and Wales since the early 20th century. They prey on squirrels and, because grey squirrels are slower, larger, more populous and spend more time on the ground than their red cousins, they are easier prey for the pine marten. As non-native species, grey squirrels also lack the instinctive anti-predator response to pine marten scent that makes our red squirrels run for cover at one sniff.

There are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 pine martens in Scotland. That may be in part why red squirrel populations are healthier north of the border. Pine martens have been reintroduced in various areas of Northern Ireland. In recent years, controlled studies have reintroduced them to parts of Wales and the Forest of Dean.

The hon. Member is elucidating comprehensively the various options open to us. Does she agree that we need Government and wider society to accept that either we allow the grey squirrel population to proceed as it has in recent decades, which will eventually lead to the annihilation of the red, or we significantly control the greys to preserve the native red squirrel species?

I thank the hon. Member. He makes the point effectively that this is teamwork, and urgent. We need to use all the resources at our fingertips and beyond to control this terrible situation.

The study suggests that reintroducing pine martens has a positive impact on reducing grey squirrel populations and enhancing red squirrel populations. However, that approach will not work in isolation. Pine martens live in forested areas and dislike the urban environments that grey squirrels thrive in. Increasing the extent and quality of woodland areas will help, but it is unlikely that we will see pine martens set up home in city parks any time soon. Also, although pine martens may reduce grey squirrel populations in one location, that may not be the case in another ecosystem, where there are alternative sources of prey.

Another option is immunocontraception—in other words, the use of fertility control methods to reduce grey squirrel numbers. A similar approach has been used to control goat populations on the Great Orme in north Wales. DEFRA has invested £300,000 in supporting research and development on fertility control methods for the squirrel population. It has supported proposals led by the UK Squirrel Accord, which is a coalition of more than 40 forestry and conservation organisations.

A recent project in the Elwy valley in Wales modelled the likely impact of putting contraceptive-laced food in hoppers, accessible only to grey squirrels, using a placebo in place of a contraceptive. There are a number of possible issues with that, including the cost of developing the infrastructure and the risk of hoppers being accessible to other species or of contraceptive-laced food getting into the paws of other species, but it is certainly part of our potential armoury. When comparing contraception and pine martens, one could argue that although the public might prefer pine martens as a more natural solution, the grey squirrel might well prefer taking the pill to facing off against a hungry pine marten.

Finally, there is a new piece of technology: the gene drive. It works on the principle of selective inheritance, whereby pregnant females would produce only male offspring. Although it has many potential benefits, there are also potential downsides that would need careful consideration. Gene drive technology is really in its infancy and has not yet been researched on squirrels. There may be the risk of the technology jumping between squirrel species or of males becoming frustrated at the shortage of female squirrels, resulting in an increased level of tree stripping. It will also require heavy investment. It is unlikely that gene drives will offer a practical answer to the problem within the next decade, but I would support the Government looking into the technology as part of the longer-term solution.

There are a couple of other things that would really give red squirrels a helping hand. The first is a squirrel pox vaccine. Grey squirrels are carriers of this debilitating virus, but they rarely contract it, and squirrel pox outbreaks among red squirrels are generally linked to grey squirrel encroachment on their territory. Squirrel pox kills red squirrels 17 to 25 times faster than it kills greys, and a single outbreak can wipe out an entire local red squirrel population. It is a horrible disease, similar to myxomatosis in rabbits, with deaths often resulting from starvation as squirrels become unable to feed themselves. Had a recent outbreak of squirrel pox on the mainland reached Ynys Môn, it would undoubtedly have devastated the red squirrel communities on our island. A vaccine developed in 2009 resulted in severe side effects in red squirrels, and no further vaccine research has been carried out since 2013. The Wildlife Ark Trust is now leading on fundraising to develop a vaccine, and several countries are listed as supporters on its website, including Germany, Spain and Ireland. It would be fantastic to see the UK listed alongside them.

The second thing that would help red squirrels would be to develop and enhance the natural habitats available for them through programmes such as the landscape recovery scheme. This issue needs large, landscape-scale proposals to significantly reduce or eradicate grey squirrels in a way that trapping and shooting cannot do.

I am asking the UK Government to show support for our native red squirrel and back the different measures that can be used to help them thrive. They should support programmes to reintroduce pine martens to our woodlands, continue to work with the Squirrel Accord on the development of contraceptive schemes, invest in gene drive research for long-term and large-scale results, provide funding for research into a squirrel pox vaccine, and facilitate programmes that will increase and improve red squirrel habitats through further rounds of the landscape recovery scheme. Diolch yn fawr.

It really is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and to follow my fellow atomic kitten, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie). She and I usually engage in debates on the subject of nuclear, because without it there can be no net zero or the exceptionally well-paid apprenticeships and jobs that the industry brings, but today I have discovered that our constituencies have something else in common: we both have red squirrels.

Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned about how we are dealing with grey squirrels. As I have said before here in Westminster Hall, when Beatrix Potter wrote her best-selling and globally celebrated book in 1903, she based her famous character Squirrel Nutkin on a red squirrel from St Herbert’s island on Derwentwater in Keswick, which is in my constituency. However, I really worry that such a book could not be written today, because sadly, the sight of red squirrels has become so rare. It is doubtful whether an author such as Miss Potter could become so inspired by the trials and tribulations of Squirrel Nutkin, Twinkleberry and their many cousins.

There are multiple reasons for the demise of the red squirrel—perhaps our most iconic native animal—not least the impact of humans and the loss of the red squirrel’s habitat. But, to give credit where it is due, I commend the Government, and specifically the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for the Environment Act 2021 and the environmental improvement plan, which details, across 10 goals, how we will halt nature’s decline and, most importantly, create more habitat, which is the single biggest action we can take to help nature recover.

Red squirrels need more trees. We all need more trees, because trees alleviate flooding and filter pollution. Trees provide fuel for our homes and power for our communities. Trees shade the ecosystem beneath them and, in a warming world, that has never been so important. Trees are home, shelter, breeding site and larder to so much of our wildlife. Trees sequester and store carbon, and they support a timber sector that employs 32,000 people, providing us with sustainable construction materials, posts and beams, panels and boards, furniture and fittings, and card and paper. As the former Minister for trees, I know just how tree-mendous the largest of our plant species is, and I want to put on the record my appreciation for all those people who research, plant, protect, care for and harvest trees and work with timber.

During National Tree Week, I hope we can all take a moment to celebrate the diverse and varied forestry workforce and everyone who cares for and appreciates trees. Most importantly, we should all plant a tree—the right tree in the right place for the right purpose. For anyone planting many trees, there is a variety of different funding opportunities from DEFRA and, thanks to Anna Brown at the Forestry Commission, we have a much speedier process, too. Despite the brilliant England trees action plan, the vast amount of public and private policy and funding support, and the overwhelming benefits that I have set out, unless we tackle the impacts of deer and grey squirrels in particular, we will fail to meet our 16.5% tree canopy cover target by 2050. That means we will fail to provide the habitat that nature needs to recover.

Grey squirrel damage accounts for the loss of thousands of trees all over the country and millions of pounds of damage, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn set out. More tragically, grey squirrels carry the incredibly infectious squirrel pox disease but remain unaffected. Yet, it is fatal for red squirrels. Put simply, where there are live greys, there will be dead reds. Unlike red squirrels, grey squirrels are not native. They are invasive and will outcompete the native red in size, breeding rate and general hardiness for habitat and food.

In Cumbria, and no doubt wherever red squirrels remain across the UK, the existence of red squirrels is testament to the volunteer efforts of conservation groups, which work tirelessly to control grey squirrel populations. The volunteers undergo training and follow strict risk assessment procedures. They secure the appropriate insurance and land access agreements. They will be up at the crack of dawn using their own vehicles and equipment. I would like to recognise the passion and determination of these volunteers across the UK and encourage more appreciation for their dedication to conservation. I am fortunate to have many such volunteers and organisations in and around Copeland, including the West Lakes Squirrel Initiative, Copeland Red Squirrel Group, Ennerdale Community Red Squirrel Group and Keswick Red Squirrel Group. They are all part of the Northern Red Squirrels community, and there are many other groups across Cumbria.

I am pleased that DEFRA has committed to a robust and effective grey squirrel action plan, which will seek to control numbers, but I would like some assurance from the Minister, who is a most competent and capable Minister and is most familiar with the countryside, about when we will have a published plan. Does she agree that, in red squirrel strongholds and, I would argue, all Forestry Commission sites, there must be a zero-tolerance approach if we are to provide the red squirrel with a chance of survival and prevent the vast and visible damage to woodlands and the flora and fauna that are so dependent on increased tree coverage?

I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and look forward to hearing an update from the Minister on the progress being made on the oral contraceptive and the world-leading research in the development of gene editing. Could she also touch on any plans to reintroduce red squirrels in areas where we feel their survival could be more favourable in future?

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. First, I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) for securing the debate and for giving all five Members in the room who are passionate about red squirrels the chance to talk about the subject and everything the Government are doing to ensure that the precious red squirrels survive and thrive. I must thank my hon. Friend for the great deal of work she does in her constituency to champion those creatures. I also thank the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), who has done an awful lot of the bones of the work on the framework for the grey squirrel action plan. I must note how much she has done and how passionate she is. Her work has genuinely helped along the whole programme a great deal.

I do not know whether you have seen red squirrels, Mr Vickers, but I have seen them up close and personal at a place called Snaizeholme in the Yorkshire dales. Once seen, they are never forgotten. I am a massive Beatrix Potter fan as well, so Squirrel Nutkin had a big impact on my childhood. Once one has engaged with red squirrels, one becomes passionate about saving them, as I think is the case with the Members in this room.

This debate is about grey squirrels in Great Britain and their huge impact on the red squirrel. We must remember that grey squirrels are often people’s only interaction with nature and wildlife, particularly in urban areas, so we need to tread with care over the subject of controlling them. It is clear that they are an invasive, non-native species to our islands, introduced into this country only in the late 19th century and becoming quickly established across Great Britain. We are only too aware now of the creature’s negative impacts on wildlife and habitats.

Expanding grey squirrel populations represents a huge threat to the reds. We have an estimated 2.7 million grey squirrels in Great Britain and they are outcompeting the poor little red squirrels for food. They transmit the awful squirrel pox, which has been touched on, which is fatal to our native species. As a result, grey squirrels have displaced red squirrels throughout much of Great Britain, leading to fragmentation of their populations. We believe there are currently fewer than 39,000 red squirrels in England and 287,000 in Great Britain.

The issue is about more than that, however. Grey squirrels are not only having an impact on the populations of red squirrels, as has been clearly outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland; they are also having a huge impact on trees, the timber industry and the deciduous, ornamental forests. That is because they strip the bark, and managing woodlands and trying to deal with that is a real challenge.

A recent report by the Royal Forestry Society suggested that the cost of the damage is about £37 million a year in lost timber value in England and Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland is right in saying that the timber industry is an important industry that we want to expand. Trees are also important for carbon capture and climate mitigation, but there is also the cost of replacing the trees that squirrels have killed. The World Bank has forecast that the global demand for timber will quadruple by 2050 and that includes in the UK. That is why it is even more important that we can, first, produce as much as we can at home, and secondly, that the crop we plant is sustainable. We have made commitments to that in the environmental improvement plan.

Damage from grey squirrels can also act as a disincentive to planting trees because of the costs of coping with the animals, and that is currently blocking the growth of the domestic timber supply chain. That really needs to be tackled. If we want to have a much more sustainable domestic timber trade, we need to reduce pressure from this invasive, non-native species.

Grey squirrels have an impact on our coniferous forests, which largely supply our timber, but they also have an impact on deciduous forests as well. Once a tree—beech, for example—is destroyed, fungal diseases can take hold, which is another threat to the trees. Clearly, we have to do something about that.

In the light of the significant environmental damage inflicted by grey squirrels, they have been listed as a species of special concern under the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019—there is similar legislation in Scotland—which is an important tool in managing the impact of that invasive species. A refreshed GB invasive non-native species strategy was published this year, which sets out the challenges and what we need to do. It supports other national strategies and provides an integrated approach across Great Britain. Obviously, we need to know what is happening in Northern Ireland as well, and I am pleased to say that it is very much part of the Squirrel Accord.

To get to the nuts and bolts of today’s debate, we have a grey squirrel action plan, championed by DEFRA, which sets out our actions to manage the squirrels in England. I can assure Members that that will be published shortly. It is a refreshed five-year plan that will concentrate on advice and incentives for land managers, more collaboration and partnerships, and funding and research as appropriate.

I want to thank the volunteers whose role is critical, as has been highlighted by many in this room today. We will also encourage our land managers to take action. If they are part of the countryside stewardship under the woodland element, they can access the squirrel management supplement. There is funding to help, which many landowners have taken advantage of, and I encourage others to do so.

I have already mentioned the Squirrel Accord, which is chaired by Lord Kinnoull. I recognise his valuable work. Northern Ireland is involved in that, too. We are co-ordinating across all the nations and exploring different methods of management.

Both of my hon. Friends mentioned immunocontraception and the idea of encouraging squirrels to take contraceptives through bait that is taken orally. It is put in the food, and research work is well under way. There is still a way to go, but that valuable work is going on. We have to carry on doing that work and we are committed to that.

My hon. Friends also mentioned pine martens, a natural predator of the grey squirrel. They have been released in the Forest of Dean, where they are being monitored for a programme, quite near where I am in Somerset. That is a useful and interesting study and there will be opportunities there as the population of pine martens grow. Work is still under way on gene drive technology, which can alter genes and eventually help us control the grey squirrel.

Work has been done on developing a vaccine against the horrible squirrel pox, but it is not looking overly promising, to be honest. Work has been stalled for some years, so we prefer to concentrate research efforts on the contraception, which looks more promising in the long term. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn asked about that, so I hope she is happy with that response.

We have 22 large-scale landscape recovery schemes. The second round is opening and there are opportunities there, as well as through the nature recovery projects, to create the right kinds of habitats for our wonderful red squirrels.

I hope I have demonstrated that there is a lot going on across Government. A lot of it has been escalated since my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland was involved in DEFRA. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn for the extremely valuable work that she has been doing. The action plan will be published very soon. We are committed to controlling those pernicious grey squirrels.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.