Grey squirrel faces cull to save forests

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The Independent Online

Fluffy-tailed and cute grey squirrels may be, but, according to leading scientists, these alien animals are now causing such widespread destruction to the British countryside that a national programme to drastically reduce their numbers is needed.

Fluffy-tailed and cute grey squirrels may be, but, according to leading scientists, these alien animals are now causing such widespread destruction to the British countryside that a national programme to drastically reduce their numbers is needed.

In some areas, such as the Chilterns, Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean, the greys' bark-stripping activity is damaging woodland so severely that the landscape is being altered permanently.

Their suspected transmission of the deadly squirrel pox virus is killing the native red squirrel in one of its last mainland England strong-holds; and ornithologists and landowners are convinced that greys seriously reduce numbers of woodland birds.

Groups as diverse as the European Squirrel Initiative (ESI), Songbird Survival, the Royal Forestry Society, the Countryside Landowners Association, the Forest and Timber Association (FTA), other local conservation bodies as well as Forestry Commission experts have told The Independent on Sunday that they believe the severe reduction of greys is now a priority. It is a view attracting support from more and more MPs and peers of all parties.

At stake, say ESI campaigners, is not just the survival of broad-leaved woodland and the red squirrel in Britain, but the potential extinction of the species across Europe.

No greys existed on mainland Europe until a pair were introduced to an estate near Milan just after the Second World War. The squirrels have spread to within five miles of the Swiss border, and potentially threaten reds in France, Germany, Austria and beyond. A project to eradicate greys in Italy, while there was still a chance, was halted by a court case brought in 1997 by animal rights groups.

Here, the concern is not just the greys' forcing of reds to isolated margins in England and Scotland (greys now outnumber reds by about three million to 130,000), but their devastating effect on woodlands, especially through stripping of bark. John Morris, whose Chilterns Woodlands Project monitors the area's trees, says: "The greys ... are now changing the face of the Chilterns." Bede Howell, a past president of the Royal Forestry Society, says: "The Forest of Dean is our best oak forest and there are many areas where there is not a tree undamaged. In the future, Britain will not have the woodland we have now."

Forestry specialists say bark stripping, especially of beech and sycamore, leads to malformed, diseased, stunted or even dead trees. Falling branches are now a safety issue, and Mr Howell cites a 160-year-old beech beside a West Midlands road that had to be felled. Most experts insist that greys are now so numerous that reducing, if not eliminating, them needs an enforceable national policy. This faces two hurdles: landowners would have to grant permission for trappers or shooters to enter their property, and political will. The latter has been lacking because so many, chiefly urban, people regard greys as acrobatic "cheeky chappies" of the natural world. As Mr Howell says: "Wouldn't you rather see the real Tufty? Well, if we can get rid of the greys, we can bring the reds back."

Immuno contraception, via treated bait, was trialled, but abandoned in 2002 as "ineffective". The ESI and others still think an improved version of this offers the best solution, and have commissioned a review of small mammal control methods worldwide to try to find a resolutionthe public would accept. The development of a grey-specific contraception method will take a great deal of time and money. The trouble is that landowners, woodland birds and the dwindling numbers of Britain's red squirrels do not have time on their side.

ONWARD MARCH OF THE GREYS

  • Between 1932 and 1957, with the exception of the Second World War years, the Ministry of Agriculture paid a bounty for every grey tail brought to a police station. Initially six old pence (2.5p), it was 2/6 (12.5p) by the end, but was abandoned as ineffective. The greys' population range even expanded during the scheme.
  • Scientists reported in 1997 that five people in Kentucky had contracted CJD from eating grey squirrel brains. More than 40 million greys a year are eaten in the US.
  • Greys are more fecund than reds, producing two, sometimes three, litters of up to four young a year. They are also capable of living at a density of 18 per hectare, 10 times that of reds.
  • Greys are nearly twice the size of reds, and are able to eat seeds and nuts when they are unripe. This means they can deplete woodland food supplies before reds and dormice have had a chance to gather any.

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