At the end of last month, the Wildlife Trust recruited an army of 5000 with the intention of saving red squirrels from extinction. Initially, I was inquisitive.
A quick google search directed me to The Wildlife Trusts’ website which has usefully provided an in-depth section of facts with an FAQ section. Without having done any prior research I was thinking about signing up. An element which did strike me as odd was their defeatist outlook and negative emotive language used throughout the section which was meant to be stating facts. It was at this point I remembered fondly feeding grey squirrels nuts from my hand in York Museum gardens 4 years ago, I then experienced feelings of guilt that I was considering ridding areas of this species for conservation experience on my CV. Perhaps they were killing off other red squirrels and the two species simply could not exist together? This, unfortunately was not the case and the more I read the more perplexing I found the whole situation.
Natural History of Grey and Red Squirrels
Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) are native to the UK and have always been looked upon fondly by the UK public, perhaps childhood tales such as The Story of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrice Potter have been a contributing factor to this. Red squirrels globally are listed as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN red list and are ubiquitous across Europe and Asia with their populations distributed from Portugal to Japan. This came as a surprise as the impression the Wildlife Trusts’ site gave was that global extinction was imminent for this species. The decision to be vague was likely not arbitrary – which contributed to me feeling slightly misled. It is estimated that there are ~ 120,000 red squirrels left in the UK today. Red squirrels belong to the family Sciuridae, order Rodentia.
Grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are native to the US and were brought over to the UK by a man named Thomas Brocklehurst who lived in Cheshire in the Victorian age (1876). He kept a pair of grey squirrels on his land and it is recorded that his friends liked the look of them and wanted some for themselves. Is it fair to categorise this species as invasive when they have populated the UK as a result of human error? Grey squirrels globally rank correspondently to red squirrels on the IUCN list, however in the UK they are abundantly distributed at ~3.5 million. The public have been led to believe that greys often attacks reds or steal their food, however there have been a number of studies disproving this. Greys are carriers of the squirrel parapox virus (SPPV) – there was a time when they could not survive the outbreak of this virus (like the
reds) but selection acted so that they began producing antibodies which were resistant to this disease, subsequent to this they became immune. The grey squirrels also belong to the Sciuridae family, order Rodentia.
What defines ‘grey control?
As I began researching grey squirrels I came across the rather ominous phrase ‘grey control’. To identify what this was I consulted the ‘official review of red squirrel conservation activity in Northern England’ (constructed by Natural England – the government’s advisor for nature conservation in the UK). This organisation provided a list of what grey control entails; shooting, lethal injection, kill trap and ‘sack’ (shorthand for blindfolding then striking over the head) these were the most common despatch methods. I have provided an exert from the report here depicting results representative of 38 anonymous participants and their preferred methods of ‘eradication’ from differing organisations throughout the UK. Unfortunately a number of people from within this study reported trapping methods frequently caught non target species in their kill traps.
Red squirrels are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) under Schedule 5.
I had a look into what specifically constitutes a ‘protected species’ and found this;
An animal is a “protected animal” for the purposes of this Act if—
(a) it is of a kind which is commonly domesticated in the British Islands,
(b) it is under the control of man whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or
(c) it is not living in a wild state”.
I then wanted to find out what being commonly domesticated in the British Islands entailed: ‘A species is only deemed native if it reached the British Isles without human intervention (either intentional or unintentional). That means that to be native the species must have reached Britain before the land bridge joining Britain to the continent was submerged. Alternatively species can also be native when they have flown or swum to Britain’.
Contrary to the reds, grey squirrels are listed under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Wildlife Countryside Act making it illegal to release them or allow them to escape into the wild. If trapped they must not release the grey squirrel back into the wild and may be humanely dispatched.
Is SPVV the only cause for red squirrels rapid decline?
No. Habitat loss due to deforestation and urbanisation by humans is the number one reason for the decline in red squirrel numbers.
There is in fact a vaccine being developed – or so there was reported in 2008… and 2013… and then the internet fell silent. According to the government body review roughly over a million pounds annually is spent on ‘grey control’. This money could be siphoned into organisations which develop a vaccine promoting resistance to the virus, which is a more productive use of the money as there is evidence to suggest that there has been no successful method developed in the long-term control (nor indeed the eradication) of grey squirrel populations … a recovery in numbers was found to take place within 10 weeks of intensive culling programs.
Immuno-contraceptives are currently being tested as a means of sterilising the greys to control their numbers. Its recently been reported that the oral contraceptives will be covered in Nutella as bait for the squirrels however these contraceptives won’t be released for five years. It is predicted that the grey squirrel’s population will be reduced by two thirds four years after the contraceptive is used. If this is the case, why the rush for culling now? Red squirrels aren’t predicted to go extinct in the UK for roughly 60 years. In addition, if grey squirrels don’t take or find the bait, non-target species (such as reds) may take the bait and damage their own reproductive systems making the whole arduous process counter intuitive. However, it has been suggested by officials that this practice would be used in conjunction with culling not as an alternative.
The most concerning information pulled from the ‘official review of red squirrel conservation activity in Northern England’ which reports that there was a distinct lack of systematic management in the frequency at which the grey control measures were taken. Essentially there are animal welfare rules in place but no one to make sure anyone is adhering to them and control measures are not even being deployed in a professional, controlled, routine way but deployed in more of a ‘whenever I feel like it’ manner. How can we be sure these volunteers are practicing ‘humane’ methods of despatch?
Finally I came across a species which used to be native to England and is still found in Scotland – the pine marten (martes martes). Pine martens are a predator species which feed on grey squirrels (which aren’t as quick on their feet as the reds as they are twice the size) perhaps this is why there is still a large population of reds in Scotland. Why has this species not even been given a consideration in the 111-page book on the review of nature given directly to the government?
Pine martens became extinct in the UK due to habitat loss and urbanisation, with intervention they could thrive again and contribute to a more balanced ecosystem.
I do not accept this is the best ‘conservation management’ our country can offer, in 2017 conservationists should be coming up with viable solutions which are beneficial to the largest portion of the community as possible. Pigheadedly bludgeoning any species which presents an issue for another with a perceived greater inherent value of life is an archaic, barbaric and unacceptable practice. Protecting one species and regarding them to be sacrosanct whilst poisoning their cousins in my view is comically rife with hypocrisy. Especially when it is our fault the greys are here and half as much our responsibility the reds are declining due to habitat loss.
Human interference in this case is completely and utterly responsible for the nature imbalance. We have fabricated a manmade injustice as a result of a manmade issue and our responsibility is to sort it out fairly in a way which is beneficial to both species. The obvious way to restore the nature imbalance is to reintroduce pine martens and buzzards to naturally address the overpopulation issues instead of rallying volunteers and not regulating their dispatch methods any more closely other than to send them a questionnaire. The executive summary of the official review of squirrel conservation practice even states in the second bullet point that ‘Historically, red squirrel conservation efforts have involved grey squirrel control at national or regional level’ – historical methods are not today practiced in medicine, behavioural ecology, politics, schools etc. so why conservation? I am so glad I decided to question what I felt was innately wrong a couple of days ago otherwise I could have just as easily been out there with the rest of the at best misled and at worst bloodthirsty with a sling around another innocent immigrants throat.