Grey squirrels to be culled to protect native red species

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Naturalists are to set up a network of heavily protected sanctuaries to save Britain's last red squirrels from extinction at the hands of their larger cousins - the grey squirrel.

Naturalists are to set up a network of heavily protected sanctuaries to save Britain's last red squirrels from extinction at the hands of their larger cousins - the grey squirrel.

The measures will include shooting and poisoning thousands of grey squirrels close to the 20 new reserves and are a last-ditch attempt to arrest the plummeting red squirrel population.

Since their introduction from North America in the late 1800s, grey squirrels have colonised most of England, Wales and central Scotland, damaging the forests needed by reds and out-competing them for food.

The Government-backed initiative follows warnings earlier this month that the last remaining Cumbrian red squirrels are close to dying out. They are considered Britain's oldest "pure breed", but only 1,000 Cumbrian reds are thought to survive.

Since the 1940s, red squirrels have become increasingly rare across England and now number about 160,000, compared to 2.4 million greys. Now officially one of Britain's most threatened mammals, reds are confined to a few conifer forests and woods in Northumberland, Cumbria, and Lancashire, and several islands off the south coast.

Now, the UK Red Squirrel Group, an official committee of conservation experts, has decided to designate 20 forests and woods in northern England as dedicated refuges for red squirrels, including the vast Kielder forest area just south of the Scottish border.

The committee is to ask the Heritage Lottery Fund to pay for the new survival plan - arguing that red squirrels are an essential part of the UK's cultural history.

The action plan will involve banning the planting of broad-leaved trees loved by greys and protecting the conifers loved by reds. Each refuge will be surrounded by a buffer zone, where grey squirrels will be trapped and poisoned to prevent their spread.

The committee is also drafting plans to protect red squirrels on the Isle of Wight and three islands in Poole Harbour in Dorset - the last grey squirrel-free areas of southern England. Local councils will be asked to shoot any grey squirrel which is spotted on sight.

The new initiative, which is being co-ordinated by the Forestry Commission and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, follows mounting pressure for a more aggressive policy towards grey squirrels.

The British Trust for Ornithology believes that grey squirrels are partly to blame for a collapse in woodland birds, such as finches, tawny owls and the nuthatch, because they eat their eggs and young, damage young trees and take up valuable food supplies.

Country sports enthusiasts have appealed for local grey squirrel culls by shooters, and for landowners to put out bait dosed with the lethal anti-coagulant drug Warfarin. Last month's edition of Country Illustrated magazine claimed the grey's spread is one of rural Britain's "single greatest catastrophes".

The article concludes: "Let us all go to war and kill some grey squirrels."

Demands for a national strategy have also come from the European Squirrel Initiative - an umbrella group of landowners and conservationists - which wants ministers to fund research into ways of chemically sterilising greys.

However, the Forestry Commission believes it is too late to eradicate Britain's greys, and argues that refuges for reds are more realistic and cost-effective. Ministers also argue that grey squirrels are very popular in many British cities and that a national cull would be politically unacceptable.

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