Defra squirrel ‘control’ to plan a ‘cynical and vicious scapegoating exercise’

Posted on the 23rd January 2006

Today's announcement by the government of a new 'plan to control grey squirrels' is condemned by Animal Aid as a cynical and vicious exercise in scapegoating.

Biodiversity Minister Jim Knight, in his statement announcing the slaughter programme, blames the grey squirrel for damaging woodland, for ‘being largely responsible for the decline of the red squirrel in England’ and – a new accusation – threatening dormice. Missing from the charge sheet are: starting the Second World War and spawning Al Qaeda. But perhaps this will be rectified in subsequent government announcements.

The grey squirrel is just one of a number of ‘monster species’ being scapegoated by DEFRA for the environmental and animal welfare vices of our own species, says Animal Aid. It is people, notes the national campaign group, not squirrels, who have damaged and consumed vast tracts of woodland and other wildlife-friendly landscapes. The damage to woodland attributed to greys is vastly exaggerated (see Note 1). Moreover, most people accept that the animals with whom we share this planet will leave their mark in the habitat they occupy.

While grey squirrels are the contemporary villains, the cherished red was, for many decades, persecuted by foresters and gamekeepers. They used to be known as tree rats and there was a price on their head. This is because – like greys – they strip bark and take birds eggs. Just one so-called ‘squirrel club’ in the highlands killed 85,000 reds in the first 30 years of the last century.

As well as being hunted, the red was a victim of climate changes, disease and woodland destruction. They were already in decline before the grey was introduced more than 100 years ago as an ornamental species. It is claimed by Jim Knight that the grey transmitted to the red the deadly parapox virus. But historical evidence shows that red squirrels were dying from parapox virus in very many areas where the grey had never been present.

The greys have flourished, says Animal Aid, because they have been better able to adapt than the red. They are more sturdy, opportunistic and faster at breeding. And while reds are well adapted to a life up in the tops of conifer trees feeding on cone seed, the heavier grey is a broadleaved woodland specialist. The only chance of survival the reds have in Britain, says the campaign group, is to support the habitat in which they best thrive.

Jim Knight, in today’s statement, stresses the government’s commitment to ‘humane control’. But an approved method of destroying greys is through the use of warfarin, a blood-thinning drug, which slowly and painfully kills the animals by stopping their blood from coagulating. The victims die from internal bleeding.

A destruction method favoured by Red Alert – whose ‘control’ work is lauded by the Biodiversity Minister – is to stuff cage-trapped squirrels into sacks and batter them to death (see Note 2). Grey squirrels have two litters a year. If the nursing female is captured, her helpless young will die slowly from thirst and starvation.

We cannot co-opt and endlessly refashion the natural landscape, says Animal Aid, and expect the same animals to survive in the same proportions as in the past. They cannot. Killing innocent wildlife in an attempt to purge our disappointment is no substitute for facing up to reality.

Notes to Editors

  • The tree species most vulnerable to bark stripping is beech, and yet most of the beech timber crops are turned into chip boards and small items like paintbrush handles. Only a small minority of trees are gown to full maturity for the luxurious timber trade, where a flaw caused decades before by a squirrel stripping bark could be significant in terms of value.
  • ‘Grey Squirrel Control Information’ , published by The Red Squirrel Conservation Partnership – Based at Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Brockhole, Cumbria LA23 1LJ .Tel. 015394 48280. Under the heading, ‘Dealing with trapped animals’, the report states: ‘Captured grey squirrels can be humanely despatched by placing the open end of a hessian sack round the rear door of the trap. If you are using a trap with a nest box, use the front door. Run the squirrel into the sack and manoeuvre it so that its head is in the corner then kill with a blow to the head.’
  • More information: Andrew Tyler 01732 364 546.
  • We have an ISDN line for broadcast-quality interviews.
  • See also our special report: Scapegoating the aliens.

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