In defence of the Grey

Most of us like squirrels – they are entertaining to watch, fast, dexterous, bushy tailed, excellent climbers that can be seen scampering around in search of nuts and berries in our towns, parks and woodlands.

For many, they are possibly the only wild mammal they have seen. For most, especially in the south of Britain, that squirrel would have been a grey. Greys have successfully colonised our urban and country landscapes in the 200 years since they were introduced by the Victorians, as ‘a novelty’ to add interest to their country estates.

So why are many of our best known conservation charities busily campaigning to ‘Save the Reds’?

We hear scary talk of small strongholds of red squirrels courageously ‘holding out’ on small land boundaries and even islands – we are told our ‘native squirrel’ is outcompeted by the non native (read invasive) greys and is on the verge of extinction.

We’re always hearing the ‘greys’ have driven the native ‘reds’ from their homes with a combination of being bigger, faster and carrying a deadly squirrel pox virus.

How strange?

Grey squirrels seem to provoke the strongest of reactions from animal loving brits. They have all the characteristics of animals that we tend to love, and yet they are actively persecuted by our conservation charities. They are often referred to as “Tree Rats” and have recently been added to the vermin list in England and Wales.

So, let’s have a look at some of the claims of the conservation charities.

The red squirrel is in trouble and is facing extinction in parts of the UK.

Deforestation for agriculture, fuel and war caused red squirrels to become extinct in Ireland and South Scotland by the early 18th century, and rare in the Scottish Highlands by the early 19th century. Reds were reintroduced to Scotland from England, and in 1793 Scandinavian Reds were brought in to save the species. In 1837, 20,000 imported red squirrels were sold in London – many of whom escaped into the wild.

The grey squirrel is widely accepted as the main reason for the decline of the red squirrel over the past century.

Boosted by the reintroduction of foreign Reds and by a massive reforestation of conifers, replacing the Broadleaf woodland, red squirrel numbers recovered rapidly and by the late 1800s reached peak numbers – described to be at ‘plague’ proportions. Hence, they were slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands as woodland pests who strip bark, rob birds’ nests and raid gardens (sounds familiar?). Between 1900 and 1925, red squirrel numbers declined drastically under human persecution, which in Hampshire’s New Forest officially ended only in 1927.

A quote from the time sums this up – ‘It invades gardens, and will take peas from their pods as cleanly as a man. In spring it turns carnivorous and eats eggs and young birds. It damages trees by biting bark and preventing the flow of sap.’ (Natural History – Animals, by George Jennison, curator of the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens 1927).

Grey squirrels compete with red squirrels for food and shelter.

There is some truth in this. Both Reds and Greys eat nuts and berries and share the same habitats. In truth, Greys are better adapted to British broadleaf woodlands than reds who are more arboreal and are more suited to pine and coniferous plantations.

Grey squirrels carry the squirrel pox virus and transmit this to red squirrels. Once infected, red squirrels die of starvation or dehydration over 1-2 weeks.

Okay, ‘squirrel pox’ is a very emotive name for a virus and this statement infers ‘intent’ on behalf of the grey to transmit it’s ‘deadly disease’

Parapoxvirus (squirrel pox) affects both grey and red squirrels. It is often ‘alleged’ that Greys carry the disease but are immune to the virus. Not true. What is true is that whilst both reds and greys can carry Parapoxvirus the larger, stronger greys have developed some resistance to the virus and it is rarely fatal to them. The virus is often fatal to reds. Both species suffer the same horrific effects of pox scabs forming, usually around the rear leg and genitals.

Grey squirrels very rarely die from this disease as their population has developed immunity having been exposed to the virus for many years. In sharp contrast, there are no known red squirrels that have developed immunity to the disease, and the mortality rate for untreated, infected squirrels in the wild appears to be 100% – most dying within 4–5 days of being infected.

There has been some more recent anecdotal evidence on resistance to squirrel pox in the red population, including the finding of a healthy red squirrel with antibodies to the virus in Cumbria. However, the mortality rate is still considered severe, and certainly capable of local extinction of red squirrels in areas that succumb to the disease.

It is quite clear from research in the first half of the 20th century, that Parapoxvirus was endemic in the red squirrel. A paper by Middleton in 1930 clearly indicated clinical symptoms of the disease in red squirrels, and further noted that these symptoms were seen in red squirrels which had not come into contact with grey squirrels. In fact, out of 44 districts where red squirrels were affected between 1900 and 1920, only four had grey squirrels present.

Okay, so it’s clear that Parapoxvirus is an aggressive, fatal disease that is species specific to Squirrels. It is also only recorded in the UK (recently North America has recorded incidents in Greys) but it is not present throughout Europe where reds and greys survive in mixed populations. This appears to be a UK only issue; but no one is asking the obvious question, WHY?

Grey squirrels now occupy much of the UK but conservation management enables red squirrels to survive in some places.

Conservation management is one of those terms that says nothing and means different things to different people. For instance, here it could refer to using birch trees on the edge of a woodland, specifically planted to detract squirrels from the inner broadleaf beech and oaks; or it could mean, trapping squirrels, placing them in sacks and bludgeoning them to death. In fact – in the case of many of the current ‘save the reds’ campaigns – it actually means both.

Both red and grey squirrels strip bark and it can sometimes be serious. However, it is sporadic from year to year and has been found to be nothing to do with food shortages and, indeed, was prevalent where pheasants were being reared for shooting and fed on grain in winter – providing an extra food source for squirrels. You would think that a young researcher would be keen to follow up on such a hypothesis, but we have been unable to trace any such ongoing scientific research.

Compared with the destruction of trees by human beings, damage from squirrels is insignificant – except for some, mostly aesthetic, flaws in high-value trees grown to more than 100 years of age for top quality furniture.

Whilst habitat management is used to protect red squirrels, this alone hasn’t been enough to stop their decline, so additional measures are required to save red squirrels from extinction.

Okay, for additional measures please read culling. Culling squirrels have become something of a British obsession over the last century and more, and we have come up with many ways of reducing both red and grey squirrel populations.

Here is a brief synopsis of our squirrel culling history:

In 1931, The Field magazine launched an ‘Anti-Grey Squirrel Campaign’ and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) encouraged the destruction of the species. At that time around 10,000 square miles of Britain had been colonised. During the following six years, despite the campaign, the grey’s range doubled.

Between 1945 and 1955, County Agriculture Committees set up Grey Squirrel Clubs, which were provided with free shotgun cartridges by MAFF (at taxpayers’ expense). This mass culling failed to prevent grey squirrels increasing both in numbers and range, and in 1953 the Forestry Commission launched a ‘bounty scheme’, which encouraged the public to capture and kill grey squirrels, cut off their tails and take them to a police station to receive a shilling for each tail.

A 1953 shilling would be worth around £3 today. After three years of this subsidised slaughter, the ‘reward’ for a grey’s tail was doubled and remained at two shillings until the scheme was abandoned in 1957. Over one million squirrels had been killed under the four year ‘bounty scheme’ costing taxpayers at least £3million and yet, at the end, the grey squirrels were more numerous than ever and covered an extended range, despite all the shooting and trapping.

In 1973, the Forestry Commission (following a highly successful media propaganda campaign that contemptuously labelled grey squirrels as ‘tree-rats’) launched an attempt to persuade the public and Parliament to accept mass poisoning of grey squirrels with the anti-coagulant Warfarin.

The Forestry Commission assured the RSPCA that this poisoning would cause ‘little hazard’ to other woodland animals and that there was ’no evidence’ of secondary effects on predators such as foxes, stoats and weasels. We now know that anti-coagulant poisons have killed thousands of non-target domestic animals – mostly dogs – and contaminated the entire wildlife food chain.

Anticoagulant poisoning, which leads to victims dying slowly over many days from internal bleeding, is described by the government’s Pesticide Safety Directorate as ‘markedly inhumane’. It is particularly cruel for squirrels, with the Forestry Commission itself reporting that post-mortems of poisoned squirrels revealed that haemorrhage into joints was ‘common’.

Scientific evidence shows that control of grey squirrels in some key places where they are in contact with red squirrels is necessary to ultimately prevent the extinction of red squirrels in the UK. Control of grey squirrels is a last resort and is restricted to a few, targeted areas.

With the Forestry Commission’s anti-grey propaganda campaign, supported by the National Trust, having softened up public opinion and MP’s, the Government implemented the Grey Squirrel (Warfarin) Order 1973 permitting the poisoning of grey squirrels in England, except for eight counties where red squirrels could be affected. For the same reason, Scotland and Wales were excluded from the mass poisoning.

This would suggest that the Government have been following the advice of their departments MAFF (now DEFRA) and land management experts for many decades without any successful conclusions or outcomes.

With this track record, why should we believe the latest statement to support the culling of squirrels?

There is currently no viable alternative solution. There is no available vaccine or contraceptive for grey squirrels. A future contraceptive couldn’t be used in areas where populations of red and grey squirrels overlap as it would also affect the fertility of red squirrels

It seems completely illogical to be developing a vaccine for grey squirrels when they have developed a natural immunity to Parapoxvirus – surely, we should be looking at ways to develop the same resistance in reds as the first priority.

Evidence shows that in areas where conservation management has been used, red squirrel populations are now thriving.

Local extinction of grey squirrels through culling to introduce non native, captive bred red squirrels – is that really conservation?
Grey Squirrels did not ‘invade’ Britain of their own accord – our ancestors introduced them.

They have no control over the pox that they carry, nor do they intentionally pass it on reds,

What they have done is become very effective in colonising areas where the reds are no longer present. 

Grey squirrels are not predatory to reds – they simply do what they do; which is to be grey squirrels.

We introduced them without consideration of the consequences, how can it be right then, that our only solution is to kill them by the tens of thousands, year after year, for most of the last century.

Nobody seriously believes that the grey squirrel could be exterminated in the UK.

A report by Stephen Harris and colleagues at the University of Bristol concluded that culling greys to save reds is neither viable nor economic. It concluded that “We could save ourselves a lot of time, money and effort by not persecuting grey squirrels”.

No one wants to see the red squirrel become extinct in Britain, but neither should we accept the culling of the tens of thousands of grey squirrels and the infinite number that we will have to kill if current plans are to continue in perpetuity.

The methods of killing grey squirrels have been horrific, expensive and ineffective. We need to show a bit more respect to this highly successful species and look at viable alternatives to culling.

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