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Should we cull grey squirrels to save the native red?

 

Red Squirrel

Under threat: ‘Red squirrels are one of nature’s cutest inventions. Delicate and inquisitive, I would love to have them in my garden.’ Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Should we cull grey squirrels to save the native red?” was written by Hugh Warwick, for theguardian.com on Friday 28th November 2014 16.06 UTC

 

What should we do about grey squirrels? Introduced from America in the late 19th century, the grey has made itself very much at home in Britain, with a population of around 2.5 million. The problem is that our native red squirrel suffers. And while the greys do out-compete them, the real worry is that the greys carry a disease – squirrel pox virus – that leaves the immigrants untouched but is lethal to the reds.

So what to do? The BBC reported on November 28 that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is planning to overhaul the advice it gives about grey squirrel control – and on the table is a legal obligation for landowners to cull. Is an attempt to eradicate this species from our shores the right solution?

I find myself conflicted. It seems that leaving grey squirrels alone will result in the population of reds diminishing even further. Red squirrels are one of nature’s cutest inventions. Delicate and inquisitive, watching them at garden bird feeders in Berlin was an utter delight. I would love to have them in my garden too.

Yet Defra’s policymakers seem to have a remarkably ropey grasp of science, if their actions on badgers, buzzards and bees are anything to go by. I worry about a response to wildlife management issues that seems to have been scripted by leader writers at the Daily Mail – so that when there is trouble we are directed to blame the illegal immigrants first before checking to see if there are any underlying societal problems.

Could individual landowners do more to undertake local control? Yes. There are areas where red squirrels are still in the ascendency. Some of these are islands – others are remote areas less affected by greys. Should the control be lethal? I believe, reluctantly, that until there is an alternative, the answer is yes. But this should be done specifically with the aim of protecting red squirrels.

Creating barriers to protect native species has been done with some success in New Zealand. There, one of the illegal aliens is the species I have studied for nearly 30 years, the hedgehog. And I have agreed in that case that killing is a legitimate form of control, as it is for mink in Britain.

As for the alternatives, there is talk of developing contraceptives for the greys, and there is a research programme looking at a squirrel pox vaccine that needs funding. Perhaps, if the real motivation is the protection of the reds, this should be reinstated. Though I wonder whether the call to cull, like the badger-madness, is more of reaction by entitled landowners wanting to go back to the way it was always done.

There is one possibility that is not being discussed, and that is to look to nature. If we were to provide our predators – pine martens, buzzards and goshawks – with proper protection, perhaps even encouragement, then squirrels would be controlled and biodiversity enhanced.

None of these alternatives would be a silver bullet – they need to be undertaken alongside habitat reclamation. While we wait, the islands need protecting.

Just stop and think about the reality if the grey-haters were to get their way and all hell and fury were unleashed on this alien rodent – what would be the result?

What non-human, wild mammal are we most likely to encounter in our daily lives? The grey squirrel. We cannot ignore the fact that they are now a part of our fauna – as are other introductions including rabbits and muntjac. We stop and watch them in the park. In many cities they are so bold as to be happy to take food from your hand. They give people – including children – an opportunity to get close to a genuinely wild mammal. This is important.

The biggest threat to the natural world is our lack of understanding – without understanding, without a connection, we simply cannot care deeply enough to make the changes needed to ensure wildlife and humanity can live together.

 

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