Ministers have admitted defeat in their battle against grey squirrels, and will scrap a law to protect their red cousins.
Campaigners, and MPs in the North East where the red squirrel can still be found, have expressed their shock at the abandonment of the law requiring people to report grey squirrels on their land so they can be exterminated.
The Solicitor General for England and Wales, Oliver Heald, told an MPs’ committee on deregulation: “it is no longer considered feasible to eradicate grey squirrels, so the requirement to report their presence on one’s land is no longer useful or observed.”
But the Director of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, Janet Wickens, told The Independent she is concerned that ministers seem to have given up on the species.
She said that the organisation understands that the current statute is unenforceable due to the prominence of grey squirrels in many parts of the country, but stressed it is important to remind people grey squirrels are not native to the UK, and are destructive to both forests and businesses.
“Where there are red squirrels we are already culling and controlling grey squirrels to protect the native species. Where there are red squirrels there’s a keen awareness of the need to be alert to the presence of greys," said Ms Wickens.
“What we are saying is in the future things may be different. We were quite surprised to hear that ministers had given up. As science develops there may be ways of using reproduction control to work towards removing grey squirrels," she added.
Unwitting traders imported the grey species from the US to the UK in the 19th century, when the animals were regarded as being fashionable to have on estates.
The red squirrel population has since declined dramatically, and it is estimated that only 30,000 currently remain in the UK.
Ms Wickens explained that part of the problem is squirrel pox - a disease carried by immune greys, but which can kill reds in just under two weeks.
“That virus has the ability to wipe out complete populations of red squirrels and that is the reason we are no longer seeing the native animal. So that is why it’s not OK for grey squirrels to be part of our wildlife. They're vermin."
Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP for Newcastle Central, told the Telegraph: “I was shocked and surprised by the minister's sense of defeat when it came to halting the onslaught of the grey squirrel and protecting and promoting the red squirrel.
"We have no objection to repealing that particular clause, but would have expected to see greater energy in the protection of red squirrels.
“Red squirrels are flourishing in the North East, and there is an active interest here helping them – we have butchers who trap and sell grey squirrels, but there was no reflection of this from the minister.”
Mr Heald said that the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson reserves the power to order the destruction of grey squirrels in parts of the country where red squirrels are still thriving, and added that research work on a squirrel pox vaccine is continuing, the Telegraph reported.
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesman said: "We have no records of the law allowing people to be prosecuted for failing to report a grey squirrel in their garden ever having been enforced. That is why we are removing it from the statute books. We remain committed to protecting reds and tackling the threats greys pose to them, and to broadleaf woodlands.”
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