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Posted 29 January 2008
Almost 12,000 grey squirrels have been poisoned to death or shot in the past year in a ‘cull’ funded by the government. The killings took place in Northumberland and were undertaken - it was said - to protect the red squirrel. Grey squirrels are charged with driving reds from their homes, infecting them with viruses and destroying woodlands.
In reality, red squirrels suffered badly from deforestation, severe winters and epidemic diseases long before grey squirrels arrived in the UK. Despite their decline to near extinction in the eighteenth century, hundreds of thousands of red squirrels continued to be killed for a bounty. The organised killing of reds continued until the 1930s. Since then, fashions have changed and the red squirrel is back in vogue.
It is interesting to note that main proponents of squirrel culls are those with forestry interests, supporters of field sports or gamekeepers.
Two years ago, Lord Plumb speaking in the House of Lords, called for a cull of grey squirrels. He said: ‘Some 60 years ago the Ministry of Agriculture started to encourage people to kill squirrels, offering—I remember it only too clearly—a shilling a tail. I became a very wealthy young man at that time, as we had a lot of grey squirrels in the area and I did not need a lot of encouragement to do something about them. When the government at that time had paid out some £250,000, they decided that that was enough. There was no perceivable difference to the squirrel population.’
On this final point, he is right. Culls of grey squirrels do not work. Recent research found that culls actually may actually lead to an increase in numbers and their recolonisation can spread any disease they may be carrying further afield.
Lord Redesdale - promoter of the recent Northumberland cull - said that the grey squirrels were killed ‘humanely’ through the use of Warfarin or trapping and then shooting. In actual fact, Warfarin and other blood-thinning drugs are described by the Pesticides and Safety Directorate as ‘markedly inhumane’. These substances cause internal haemorrhaging and death rarely occurs quickly. Live trapping animals causes stress and suffering, while the animal waits hours - or perhaps days - to be put out of his or her misery. Neither method is humane.
The squirrel cull is set to expand to County Durham.