Backlash expected as ministers plan grey squirrel cull

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A cull of grey squirrels to protect the endangered red squirrel population is set to provoke a public outcry.

Ministers who announced the cull in Parliament yesterday are expecting public opposition to theirplans to use trapping, poisoning and shooting to create buffer zones around areas where the indigenous red squirrels survive.

The red squirrel is beloved by generations raised on Beatrice Potter's Squirrel Nutkin, but the more aggressive grey squirrels have taken over much of their habitat. It is estimated that there are now two million grey squirrels in Britain, and it is claimed they are also endangering the dormouse, but they are principally being made a target because of the damage they cause to woodland.

The grey squirrels, which were introduced in the 19th century from America, have driven out the red squirrel from south-east England. Colonies of red squirrels are now limited to a few areas of woodland in special National Trust reserves such as Formby on the west Lancashire coast and parts of Scotland. They are also found in larger conifer woods in Cumbria and Northumberland. Kielder Forest may support up to 75 per cent of the surviving population. Other isolated communities survive on the Isle of Wight and on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour.

It will not mean open season is being called on the grey squirrels. The animals will be culled by woodland and wildlife managers with the expertise of the Forestry Commission. The possibility of putting contraceptives in grey squirrel bait is also being considered.

Grey squirrels cause widespread damage to trees by stripping bark. They are believed to be responsible for the decline in the red squirrel population, although the reasons are complex. They are hungrier, bigger, more powerful and more adaptable than red squirrels, and also carry squirrelpox virus which is lethal to red squirrels. The grey squirrel is seen as a serious threat to the sustainable management of English woodlands and the Forestry Commission has been grant-aiding squirrel control for many years, but the attack on the grey squirrel is to be stepped up with seminars on best practice.

There have been calls for the complete eradication of the grey squirrel as a foreign invader. But environment ministers have rejected such a radical option, and will argue that they have become accepted as part of Britain's wildlife. The grey squirrels give many city dwellers a taste of the countryside, which ministers believe is a benefit that eradication would destroy.

Detailed plans will be announced tomorrow by Jim Knight, the Biodiversity minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He said yesterday that the grey squirrel was "a serious and growing threat to our native woodland and priority species". He added: "The policy will set out the rationale and actions for the control of grey squirrels."