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Plan to save red squirrels includes culling rival greys

The Independent logo The Independent 23/01/2023 Jane Dalton

An action plan backed by the government to try to save England’s red squirrels from dying out includes curbing numbers of rival greys.

Over the past 150 years, populations of much-loved reds have fallen so sharply that the species is classed as nationally endangered.

Volunteers, conservation organisations and government agencies are planning to join forces to protect and strengthen red squirrel populations, which are protected by law, and to expand their habitats.

Rival grey squirrels are the greatest threat to the species’ survival in England.

Greys, which were introduced from North America from 1876, are larger and more aggressive. They outcompete reds for food and habitat, and carry squirrelpox virus that is almost always fatal to reds.

The population of reds in the UK has dropped from around 3.5 million to between 120,000 and 160,000, according to the Woodland Trust. In England, numbers are thought to be as low as 15,000.

The Wildlife Trusts say the species could be at risk of extinction within 10 years.

The five-year action plan, which runs to 2028, includes promoting “humane grey squirrel management”.

Support will be provided for training to cull greys and “accreditation that promotes high ethical and efficacy standards”, the draft plan says.

Grey squirrels strip tree bark (England Red Squirrel Action Plan) © Provided by The Independent Grey squirrels strip tree bark (England Red Squirrel Action Plan)

But non-lethal control may be carried out, too. “New, cost-effective and alternative and complementary methods for grey squirrel management will be adopted and promoted where suitable, if and when they become available,” according to the document.

The plan has been drawn up by Squirrel Accord, a UK-wide partnership of 43 conservation and forestry organisations, government agencies and companies.

Kay Haw, director of the UK Squirrel Accord, told The Independent: “The lethal methods currently used for grey squirrel management are classed as humane because they are quick. No methods classed as inhumane are allowed to be used, like poisoning or drowning.

“Grey squirrel management is essential for the protection of red squirrel populations and young broadleaf trees.”

The group is developing an oral contraceptive, which it hopes will be available by 2030.

“Red squirrels are an important part of England’s natural heritage. While human actions endangered these much-loved mammals, it is also human actions that can reverse their fate,” she said.

Lord Kinnoull, chair of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, said: “We must halt the loss of biodiversity we are sadly witnessing in England.

“As well as bringing much joy to people’s lives, red squirrels are integral to our woodland ecosystems and support the natural regeneration of our woods.”

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