Squirrels

– in the House of Lords at 11:35 am on 23rd March 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative 11:35 am, 23rd March 2006

rose to call attention to the decline in numbers of the red squirrel in Britain and Europe; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, it appears difficult to get an accurate assessment on the current state of the red squirrel in the United Kingdom. English Nature states that knowledge of the red squirrel population size is poor and there are no methods that could be used to generate meaningful population estimates or even estimates of population change. That lack of information is rather depressing, given the often precise figures that are produced for other biodiversity action plan species, and it suggests to me a lack of commitment to saving this special animal. The best estimates of the UK red squirrel population come from the wildlife trusts which estimate that the population is now around 160,000. We know that this species was formerly distributed throughout the United Kingdom, but since the introduction of the American grey in the early part of the 20th century it has been severely reduced and is now found only on one or two islands, and in the north of England and Scotland.

To many, the red squirrel represents an integral part of our woodland landscape—an iconic creature, immortalised by Beatrix Potter, through the charismatic character of Squirrel Nutkin. But before concentrating on Squirrel Nutkin—or sciurus vulgaris, to give him his rather unflattering title—I thought I might conduct a brief health check of some of the main characters in Beatrix Potter's class of 1912. Starting with Tabitha Twitchit and Tom Kitten, they are truly on top of their game—despite the fact that against a declining wild bird population they are responsible for the killing of some 160 million birds per annum. It is perhaps surprising, given this carnage, that some of the conservation charities do not cry "foul"—but that might have something to do with the small matter of membership.

Let us now consider the status of Mr Tod, the fox. On second thoughts, given that he has taken up 700 hours of parliamentary time, it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to prolong the debate; but something tells me that we have not reached the end of Mr Tod. Is he doing well since the legislation? Not particularly, I think. That brings me on seamlessly to the other really controversial character that graced the class of 1912—and that of course is Tommy Brock. Hasn't he done well? Despite suffering from and carrying tuberculosis, he has successfully managed to establish himself in the hearts and minds of the nation as being more important than dairy cows or, indeed, farmers' livelihoods, and, like Mr Tod, has managed to secure his very own legislation.

Squirrel Nutkin must look back on his alma mater and think to himself, "How could it have all gone so wretchedly wrong for me?". Why couldn't he, like Tommy Brock, have employed a top public relations firm and secured himself as a logo for a major conservation body? How very different life might have been. But what really hurts—and hurts to the core—is that given that it is largely the fault of the American grey squirrel that he is in such a parlous state today, why is it that when someone's dog kills a grey squirrel he can be fined up to £5,000?

Where has it all gone so wrong for the red squirrel? The introduction of the grey squirrel and our lack of ability or desire to control it is the primary cause. Despite valiant efforts by some individuals, there has been reluctance by government, by the Forestry Commission and others to come to grips with the problem. The notion of killing and controlling one species, even an alien, to protect another remains anathema to some; yet that is an essential part of wildlife management in a countryside that has been formed by man. I well remember my conversation with a senior national park officer about a deciduous plantation under park management that was systematically being destroyed by grey squirrels. When I inquired why no action was being taken, I was told that the public would not approve. Surely, it is up to bodies such as national parks, the Forestry Commission, English Nature and others to explain to the public why certain actions are necessary. After all, it was done with coypu and ruddy duck eventually.

But there remains a reluctance to act positively on wildlife management in the hope that the problem will evaporate. So far as the red squirrel is concerned it will not, and immediate action against the grey is essential. However, perhaps the Government, the Forestry Commission and others may take heart from a recent omnibus survey conducted on behalf of the European Squirrel Initiative, which found that in reply to the question, "Do you think the population of alien grey squirrels should be controlled in some way in order to preserve the red squirrel population?", 74 per cent of respondents approved.

The reason why the grey squirrel has such an impact on the red is twofold. The greys colonise the same woodland habitat as the red, but because they are larger and live in higher densities the woodland habitat has to provide them with 10 times more food supply than the red squirrels require. Consequently, the reds cannot compete. The other major problem associated with the grey squirrel is the squirrel pox virus carried by the greys but which affects only the reds. It is of course lethal. What is really disturbing is that the virus is now present in the red squirrel population in Kielder in Northumberland and Whin Fell in Cumbria, two of the last strongholds south of the border. Furthermore, I am informed that there have been several confirmed cases in the grey squirrel population in southern Scotland; and whereas to date there is no evidence of infected reds, it can be only a question of time.

Of course, as any forester knows, grey squirrels are also responsible for considerable damage to trees. But perhaps surprisingly, despite a number of Written Questions from the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, and myself, it seems difficult to obtain any qualified figures from the Government on what the damage equates to financially. I find that surprising given the substantial grants available for planting and managing woodland. But the case against the grey squirrel does not rest there. Although no comprehensive research has been undertaken, it is clear to most with practical experience in such matters that greys are having a profoundly detrimental effect on the woodland bird populations of this country, many of which are still in decline. It seems extraordinary that despite the inexorable spread of the species and concern being expressed some 70 years ago about the detrimental effect that grey squirrels were having through predation of eggs and young, no proper scientific research has been undertaken.

I am amazed that the Forestry Commission, English Nature and the RSPB have not taken the matter on board. Lack of finance has been the weak excuse, but perhaps fear of the answer may be nearer to the truth. I would be interested to know what the Minister has to say on that point.

Walking as I do through St James's Park from time to time, I cannot help noticing the absence of common or garden birds. Where are the finches, the tits, the thrushes and the warblers? We are told by the RSPB that given appropriate habitat and food there is no reason why such species should not thrive. However, given the good habitat and the endless supply of food from the tourists—and, of course, no agrochemicals—why are those species absent? Perhaps the crows and the squirrels could have something to do with it.

I am confident that there is a general consensus that the red squirrel should be saved and that the grey must be controlled. Whether it is desirable to eliminate the grey squirrel is a matter of opinion. Personally, I would regard it as highly desirable given the case against it. Whether it is practical is another matter. In the absence of a wholly satisfactory solution, which may be forthcoming in due course through immunocontraception, at the moment the only realistic solution is to pinpoint those areas where a viable population still exists, and through a well co-ordinated and organised approach conduct a ruthless campaign against the grey squirrel.

For that to work effectively will require a wholehearted commitment from all parties—government, conservation agencies, the private sector and, above all, the Forestry Commission. Given that the Forestry Commission owns 22 per cent of forestry in England, 43 per cent in Scotland and 44 per cent in Wales, it has a huge responsibility. During the Committee stage of the NERC Bill, in response to an amendment moved by my noble friend Lady Byford on red squirrels, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, replying for the Government, said that the Forestry Commission would support action to help the red squirrel. That is not good enough. The Forestry Commission should lead from the front and co-ordinate everyone in positive action. Without such an initiative, that cannot work.

It is important to recognise that Britain is a signatory to several international conventions that refer to the control of alien species. Those conventions are inevitably complex and open to different interpretations, but what is crucial is that the red squirrel is added to the EU habitats directive, which must be possible if there is the will. Although protected under the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it is not protected under European law. As EU law takes precedence, there are examples where pine plantations harbouring populations of red squirrels have been felled to protect dune habitats, which are protected under EU law.

I hope that the Government will consider ways to strengthen the red squirrel's status in law to help to ensure its survival. Furthermore, we should not forget that this is not simply a UK problem. Similar experiences are developing in Europe, so it was with some surprise that I received a reply from the Minister to my Written Question earlier this year on whether Annexe 4 of the habitats directive is to include the red squirrel. The answer was no,

"as the rest of Europe has stable populations that are not yet threatened by the spread of grey squirrels".—[Hansard, 7/2/06; col. WA 91.]

Have we learnt nothing from our experience in the United Kingdom? In Italy, the grey squirrel is causing the progressive disappearance of native reds and is creating extreme damage to commercial tree, nut and fruit plantations. The presence of the grey squirrel in northern Italy has, simply, the potential to destroy the red squirrel population in Europe, never mind the economic and biodiversity problems that it will also deliver. The UK cannot sit idly by. We must urge the Italian Government and the European Commission that action is urgently required, starting with the necessary protection of the red squirrel under EU law.

I recognise that the Government have recently produced their own policy and action plan to deal with the grey squirrel problem. Whereas I welcome that in principle, it will begin to work only if there is a co-ordinated plan and a genuine willingness on all sides to succeed. The Forestry Commission has said that £1 million will be made available for such purposes, which is fine as far as it goes, but if there is to be an effective campaign against the greys, such resources must be made available year on year. Similarly, I welcome the announcement by Ms Rhona Brankin, Deputy Minister for the Environment in the Scottish Parliament that Scottish Natural Heritage and the Forestry Commission Scotland are to produce an action plan within three months to save the red squirrel in Scotland. Clearly, those two initiatives must be co-ordinated to be effective and I should be interested to know from the Minister what role the Joint Nature Conservation Committee will be playing in that.

However, in the long term, the Government must continue to look for effective immunocontraception. That now appears to be a genuine long-term solution, but how co-ordinated the research is and how committed the Government are to it are other questions. Again, I ask the Minister for a comprehensive answer on those points. I believe that Sheffield University was conducting research on IMC, but that funding for it ceased in 2001. I wonder why.

In the short term, well co-ordinated local campaigns against the grey must be the answer. It can be done, as demonstrated by Dr Shuttleworth and his team on Anglesey. I appreciate that Anglesey is an island, but the greys can cross the bridges of the Menai Strait. However, the number has been sufficiently reduced to allow the reds to recover.

After habitat loss, invasive species are the next greatest cause of biodiversity loss. The grey squirrel is on the World Conservation Union's list of the top 100—no mean achievement, given that there are several thousand species on the list.

In conclusion, I urge the Minister to heed the words of Professor Gurnell of Queen Mary College, London who, at a recent conference in Edinburgh, said:

"You either have red squirrels and no greys or you have greys. If you accept grey squirrels, then you accept the extinction of the reds, you accept falling populations of woodland birds, you accept serious long-term damage to ancient and semi-natural woodlands and you accept a changing landscape".

I know which I want. I only hope that the Minister and the Government agree with me. I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Spokesperson in the Lords (Energy), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Energy), Trade & Industry 11:50 am, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Peel, for initiating the debate and commend him for his bravery. It takes a brave man to initiate a debate that had Radio 4 saying this morning that he would be calling for an immediate cull of grey squirrels. I hate to say that his postbag will immediately be filled with letters from irate people who love grey squirrels. Indeed, many of us in this House who prefer to love red squirrels also enjoy the sight of grey squirrels in our gardens and parks, although in a recent discussion they were described as rats with good PR.

One of the problems in the public perception is that grey squirrels are the only squirrels they see. They see them in parks and gardens, and they are sociable and friendly animals. Yesterday, I walked through St James's Park and watched tourists feeding grey squirrels crisps by hand. In Regent's Park, a grey squirrel came up to my son and me and actually climbed up my leg to look in my pocket. This is not an unusual experience with grey squirrels, because they can become quite aggressive. That is a fact, although I believe there has been a cull in Regent's Park recently, so there are not so many greys around at the moment.

It is a constant battle in many gardens around the country to stop the greys raiding any provision of nuts for birds. I have been keeping a close eye on the nest boxes that I have put up.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, perhaps they are friendlier in Regent's Park than they are in St James's Park. One that ran up my leg bit me.

M

Maybe it was defending it's territory?

Submitted by M Bee

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Spokesperson in the Lords (Energy), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Energy), Trade & Industry

My Lords, members of the parks authorities say that a major problem with greys is that they can be quite aggressive because they expect to be fed.

As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said, the problem with greys, and the reason for the debate, is that they have single-handedly led to the extinction of red squirrels in many parts of the country. Red squirrels survived so well in this country because Britain was cut off from the rest of Europe when the ice age retreated, and many species of trees that would have made the march north did not reach these shores in time. There has in the past few centuries been a massive change in the diversity of woodland from the Scots pine and fir trees that would have been much more the norm in previous centuries to more broadleaf varieties. However, the speed at which the greys are moving up the country is a problem.

I declare an interest in that I have some woodland in Northumberland that has red squirrels. Last year, however, we found our first grey squirrel—it had been killed in the road—so it will surely not be too long before the grey squirrels arrive. I am just on the edge of Kielder Forest, and it is very depressing to think that that last bastion is under threat. The Zoological Society of London carried out a study into competition between greys and reds, which showed that it is not so much that over-competition is leading to the replacement of reds with greys, although that is a factor, but that squirrel pox is also a factor, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, pointed out. Where squirrel pox is added to the mix in the integration of reds and greys, the reds disappear 25 times faster in those areas. It is a real problem.

Grey squirrels are also a problem for all other native woodland species, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, also pointed out, because greys rob nests, and there has been an unexplained decline in the numbers of woodland species—unexplained, probably because there has been no attempt to study woodland birds. That decline is probably due to the grey squirrels, which account also for the destruction of trees. Five per cent of trees that suffer from grey squirrel infestation die. That is a particular problem in the north, where grey squirrels are particularly destructive to Scots pine and Norway spruce—the main bastions for red squirrels.

Efforts involving buffer zones have been undertaken to halt the advance of the grey squirrel. It is unfortunate that, in Northumberland, when there was talk of a cull of grey squirrels, there was such public outcry that much of that work had to be deferred. That is an issue which this debate is highlighting: there has to be a change in public opinion. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest that greys could be wiped out in large parts of the country. They have taken up residence and the forestry suits them so well that it will be impossible to remove them from large areas. There would be a question of whether we would want to do so.

However, in the buffer zones where there would be a mix with grey squirrels, that has to be undertaken. It is not just the competition from the greys—wherever grey squirrels go, squirrel pox follows. Red squirrels infected by squirrel pox die within a week. Those who have had the joy of seeing red squirrels in woodland realise that they are very secretive animals. They have small, segregated populations that are particularly vulnerable to the predations of the grey.

Two other aspects on the decline of red squirrels have been talked about; first, road kill and, secondly, predators, which I do not believe is such an issue. A breeding pair of goshawks has been established in Kielder Forest for some time. Part of their main diet is red squirrels, but they have not knocked back the population. I believe that grey squirrels will do that.

I have some questions for the Minister. First, will Defra help the Forestry Commission to fund large-scale control and culling in the buffer zones, which has been talked about for a long time? However, it does not seem to have been undertaken to any great extent. That would help. The second issue was brought to my attention by the work of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. I believe that its work through Red Alert has been one of the most effective campaigns in the country. A main proponent of that was Lord Ridley—whose Blagdon Estate has done a great deal to preserve red squirrels, but I believe that the greys are almost on his doorstep—who would have spoken about this. Will Defra provide funding for control of grey squirrels in areas not eligible for Forestry Commission grants?

That work is vital as it covers small woodlots which greys can use as stepping stones in their dispersal closer to the red squirrel reserves. Defra has indicated the possibility of rolling this project out to other buffer zones, but at present there is not enough funding to employ a person to write the project which would take advantage of this funding. Will the Minister talk to the local office to find out whether money is available to finance this project? It seems ridiculous that that has not been undertaken already. Will the Minister also have discussions with those undertaking the work in Scotland and in the north of England? Policy differs on each side of the border, which causes confusion and a lack of clarity in the ways that control is being undertaken. It would be helpful if he could talk to his colleagues in the Scottish Executive to make sure that a common-sense approach is undertaken.

This is an important debate; I have been amazed—having taken part in so many debates—by the extent of press interest in this issue. I very much hope that the press will take the opportunity to say that this is not just a debate about culling grey squirrels in large areas of the countryside. Grey squirrels have taken their place and will be with us for the foreseeable future in most parts of the country. However, if we are to protect the red squirrel, we must make sure that areas of the country are no-go areas for grey squirrels.

Photo of Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Lady Saltoun of Abernethy Crossbench 12:00 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, after the opening speech of the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, I do not think there is much left to say about red squirrels. Red squirrels are rather like quiet, well behaved people, who do not make a nuisance or an exhibition of themselves, or commit crimes, and so do not get themselves into the papers in the vulgar way grey squirrels do. I have read reams about grey squirrels—far too much, in fact, and almost all of it bad—but very little about red squirrels. Red squirrels do not strip bark from trees; damage arable crops, market gardens and garden plants; dig up bulb and corms from recently sown seed; eat birds' eggs; or eat telephone wires and electricity cables, as grey squirrels do.

I have the good fortune to live in one of the few remaining areas of this country the grey squirrel has not yet penetrated: Upper Deeside in Aberdeenshire, four miles west of Braemar. I live on the edge of the woods of Mar Estate, which consist mainly of Scots pine, a good mix of larch and Douglas fir, and—by way of hardwoods—a lot of native birch, a sprinkling of rowan—mountain ash to some of your Lordships—gean—or wild cherry—bird cherry, a few hardy maples and the odd alder. None of these trees is of much interest to the grey squirrel, but they are an almost ideal habitat for the red, of which we have a large number.

Since my housekeeper and gardener started feeding—as they thought—the birds, we have become a sort of squirrels' canteen. They run about all round the house and, in the early hours of the morning, climb onto the roof and run about playing, making quite a noise. They play on the lawns in front of us. I have seen them climbing up the walls. Last summer I was sitting outside and a slight movement caught my eye: there was a squirrel, sitting upstairs on my bedroom window sill, sunbathing. Recently, my housekeeper had one sitting on her kitchen window sill, within a foot of her. Okay, there was glass between them. They almost run over one's feet if one is sitting still in the garden. I would not say that they are tame; I do not think one could easily make a pet of one—nor would I wish to try—but they seem quite unafraid of us. Curiously enough, the cat does not touch them, preferring rabbits, mice and birds. There are a lot of buzzards around, but I have never seen one take a squirrel. Perhaps they do not care to come too near the house and, of course, they do not hunt in woodland.

Long may this happy situation continue, but I am very worried. Grey squirrels have already got as far as Aboyne, where there are lots of beech trees and a habitat to their liking. I fear they will soon make it to Ballater, where there is lots of oak. One of the troubles is that the hardwoods, beloved of SNH and the conservationists, are the ideal habitat for grey squirrels, whereas red squirrels prefer pine forest. Luckily, on stony, acid soil and at the altitude at which I live—1,250 feet above sea level—pine forest thrives, whereas such hardwoods as beech, oak and nut trees, beloved of the greys, struggle, except in sheltered pockets. However, it is possible to grow them. I hope those busy people who sit in overheated offices, hate conifers and interfere with everything that we do, will not force us to plant them, so creating a grey squirrel-friendly habitat. Having said that, I fear just leaving the habitat alone will not be enough, because greys can adapt to red squirrel habitat, if pushed. The only real way to preserve the red squirrel for the future is, I believe, to exterminate the greys, and it will need a very determined and single-minded initiative by the Government to do this. They would need to take their courage in both hands because a lot of people who have never known the red squirrel think, in their innocence, that grey squirrels are dear little creatures and, as we have heard, even feed them crisps in the park. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said, Squirrel Nutkin was not a grey squirrel; he was a red one. In Beatrix Potter's time squirrels were red and the greys were only just beginning to be imported into this country.

I want to put two questions to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, which I hope he will respond to when he winds up. First, I believe that once upon a time a bounty was offered for killing grey squirrels. You had to produce the tail in order to claim it. Does he know about this, and is it true? That could be a way forward. Secondly, I do not know whether grey squirrels are edible. If they were and a market could be found for their meat, that would help to get rid of them. The only trouble is I have a nasty feeling that it would be rather difficult to establish the market because a lot of people, children in particular, would say, "Oh no, I couldn't possibly eat that", just as they say they cannot eat dear little bunny rabbits. But this is worth having a look at.

Photo of Lord Monro of Langholm Lord Monro of Langholm Conservative 12:06 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I am rather surprised that the Labour Party opposite, which professes to be the party of animal rights, does not seem to have any speakers down at all in support of squirrels today. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Peel and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, on putting the case so strongly for the red squirrel. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, seems to want to have it both ways: he wants his grey squirrels and his red squirrels, but that is not possible. If we look 10 years ahead, there will be no red squirrels if we do not take more urgent action. The indigenous red squirrel will have gone and we will have to put up with the imported grey squirrel from the United States. Every now and again I go there. In urban areas grey squirrels are an absolute pest. They are in and out of dustbins and motorcars; they stand on the roof and do all sorts of things on the windscreen, and they cause accidents by dashing across the road. A large number of grey squirrels, which would be inevitable, would cause a great deal of hardship in this country.

Unfortunately, Hadrian's Wall has not kept the grey squirrel out of Scotland. I note that way back in 2002 the Scottish Executive accepted that there was a significant infestation and an increasing presence of grey squirrels. That then becomes the responsibility of Scottish Natural Heritage, which is now well known for sitting on fences and doing nothing, and that seems to be the present situation. Greys are spreading north from Cumbria and Northumbria and, much more seriously, they are bringing squirrel pox virus with them. The outlook is grim for the reds and they are doomed because, within a matter of days of being infected with pox virus, they die. Further, the rate of displacement accelerates rapidly if the virus is in a woodland. The situation is deteriorating and more action is required urgently. I know that the Government are defending 16 red squirrel strongholds and giving some funding towards that end, but perhaps the Minister can tell us a little more about what is actually being done with the money in these strongholds and how successful they are.

As my noble friend Lord Peel said, at the end of February a conference was held in Edinburgh by SNH and the Forestry Commission. The Minister gave those two organisations three months to produce a plan. One month has gone by. What progress has been made? Has news from Edinburgh filtered down to English Nature about what is going on? Has the Minister heard anything? What progress can we hope to see by the end of May?

As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, we need a cross-border mechanism. Living on the border, I get driven mad by those who act as if nature does not cross the border from one country to another, as has been highlighted by the issue of raptors at Langholm and the lack of activity by SNH and the RSPB.

We want this to be done humanely, but have we considered a bounty for killing grey squirrels? That is the only way in which we are going to have a dramatic impact on numbers. People who say, "No, you can't have a bounty and you can't kill grey squirrels", must accept that there will not be any red squirrels in 10 years' time. Mr Knight, the Minister in the other place, wants this to be carried out through humane targeting and pest control—he thinks that that will enable us to control the threat. I wonder whether that is really technically possible and feasible. I hope that the Minister will tell us how that is going to be done.

My noble friend Lord Peel mentioned the European Squirrel Initiative. It is pretty depressed with things but is leaving the situation rather at the status quo. But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is very cross about the situation and feels that we have to take a great deal more action. CITES, which looks after endangered species, is equally cross that the United Kingdom is dragging its feet, sitting on fences and doing very little to deal with the grey squirrel menace and its spread throughout this country. There is also the Berne convention, which I think I actually signed in 1979. The feeling is that we, as the European leader, are doing very little to deal with a serious issue in our own country.

Mr Knight said—I paraphrase—that it is not desirable to eradicate greys completely, but it is. I do not know why people cannot understand that, if we do not deal with this urgently, there will be no red squirrels in 10 years' time. That would be something that the nation would feel the Government had let us down on.

Photo of Lord Plumb Lord Plumb Conservative 12:12 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Peel in everything that he has said and I congratulate him on taking the initiative on this subject. I hope that, in calling for action, we really do get action on what is, in the countryside, an important and difficult problem.

Recently, I was encouraged to note in a Midland newspaper—we have a lot of grey squirrels in the Midlands—a report saying that the Government had plans to "kill", although I think that it meant "control", thousands of grey squirrels in a bid to protect the native red. I read this with great interest, because I realise that, over the past 60 years, certainly in the Midland area where I live, grey squirrels have been something of a menace. They have made their home there. They have a reputation for raiding the bird tables in the gardens. They are a threat to native woodlands, as I can prove from some of the damage that has been done to my own woodland, and, as my noble friend Lord Peel said so well, they are a threat to the wildlife.

We know that grey squirrels are not native to Britain. They were introduced to us from the United States, where they are still recognised as "tree rats". We have to control an alien species to protect our native reds, which are in rapid decline, as we know only too well. Does the Minister agree that, now that there are some 2 million grey squirrels in this country, we should really get on with taking action to control their growth? As the noble Earl said, that number compares with some 160,000 reds. Does the Minister agree with the Minister with responsibility for biodiversity about culling by shooting and about making grants available to those who assist in culling, particularly in the appropriate areas? That is a very important factor. Will he also agree to support the funding of research on other areas of controlling squirrels and, in particular, as has already been mentioned, contraception? That is one way of taking some positive action.

It is not realistic to talk of the total elimination of the grey squirrel, any more than it is of any species of animal—such as the badger, which causes havoc through the spread of tuberculosis, particularly among the cattle population. As with badgers, it is essential to concentrate a cull in target areas. It is surely striking a balance in the squirrel family by removing the aggressive and destructive greys, which may transmit disease as they multiply—as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, the squirrel pox virus is lethal to the red squirrel.

The red squirrel has been loved by generations raised on Beatrix Potter and Squirrel Nutkin. In the publicity that I hope will follow, there should be a realisation that it was the red squirrel that was loved by those children who loved Beatrix Potter.

Squirrel culling is not a new phenomenon. 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.

We can now concentrate on some action that will deal with the issue, rather than do what was done then. Some 2 million squirrels can do tremendous damage to our trees and wildlife and, 60 years on, with modern technology and scientific development, I hope that the Minister can support appropriate and positive action.

Photo of Lord Kimball Lord Kimball Conservative 12:18 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Peel, because this debate has come just in time. Unless something is done now, we are going to lose the red squirrel completely.

I think it was 86 years ago that Thorburn's classic work on the mammals of Great Britain was able to describe the red squirrel as "the Common Squirrel", going on to say that it was very plentiful. At the same time there were three introductions on the American grey squirrel, saying that it was a pest because of its habit of barking trees; that it had no future in this country; and that the grey squirrel's trouble was that it could survive only if it had a ready supply of deciduous trees and could not survive in a coniferous forest. During the war, however, most of our softwoods were devastated for pit props and all the demands of war. The red squirrel was losing its food supply and was at the mercy of the expanding population of the American grey.

We must now look at the large areas of coniferous forest in Northumberland, Shropshire, Wales and Scotland to help save the red squirrel and to destroy the American grey. However, just to make it harder for the red squirrel, we now have the problem of the goshawk. The Reverend Mr Morris published A History of British Birds in 1857. The reverend gentleman went on to point out, without any question of political correctness, that the most favoured food of a goshawk was a squirrel.

One of the best books on birds today, Field Guide to British Birds, describes the goshawk as a "rare bird of passage". In 1960 a few goshawks escaped from a falconry centre and some enthusiastic falconers followed that up by putting goshawk eggs in sparrowhawks' nests in Kielder forest. There is no evidence whatever of their having had a permit to carry that work out.

We have the importation of goshawks but we also have an explosion in the buzzard population, and they feed on red squirrels. We need to encourage red squirrels and we need to come to an agreement to kill off buzzards, of which there is no shortage today. The Government have been most co-operative about cormorants in inland fisheries and I hope that they will consider extending the same co-operation to culling buzzards in areas where we want to see the squirrel population improve.

So much of the suitable habitat for the red squirrel is in areas controlled by the Forestry Commission. I believe that the commission should have a wildlife officer who can deal with these matters. At the moment the emphasis of the commission seems to be entirely on public access but if we want to see the red squirrel survive, we need the co-operation of a proper wildlife officer in the Forestry Commission.

Photo of Lord Chorley Lord Chorley Crossbench 12:21 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I live in south Lakeland, an area of mixed woodland and farmland. It is quintessential squirrel country. Throughout the war, in the 50s and into the 60s we had only red squirrels and then the greys began to arrive. We have not seen a red squirrel for at least the past 12 months. So I warmly welcome the initiative of the noble Earl, Lord Peel, in drawing our attention to the relentless invasion of the grey squirrel. He speaks with great authority and experience. Today I am for once in complete agreement with him. I am also full of admiration for the wide range of knowledge—sadly all on the opposition Benches—that has been shown today.

What is to be done? We have had many suggestions today. I used to subscribe to Red Alert. I say "used to" because for one reason or another I seem to have lost touch with it. I am all in favour of Red Alert but it has recently felt it necessary to concentrate its efforts on red squirrel refuges. It does not have a refuge in my part of Lakeland although I think that they are in north Lakeland. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, may well have them in his part of the world. One cannot blame Red Alert. I am sure that it is right to go for refuges because it is, as it were, trying to protect a redoubt. So we are out on our own. We kill grey squirrels when we can but I fear that we are fighting a losing battle. Indeed, we may have already lost it.

A good local friend of mine, with whom I was recently talking about squirrels in preparation for the debate, drew my attention to the admirable organisation, the European Squirrel Initiative, to which the noble Earl referred. I rather gather that it has drawn attention to the situation in Italy and the need for a European directive on the basis that we in Whitehall do not really think that there is a problem, and that if there is a directive perhaps we will have to take notice. That is rather an ingenious way of tackling the matter. But of course, as the noble Earl said, there is a problem in Europe. It is not the case, as I think the Government said the other day, that there are no grey squirrels in Europe. There are three colonies, if that is the right word, in Italy. At least one of them is in the process of crossing the Alps. I believe that the French are already getting rather worried that they might make it to France. If they get to Germany, there will be a complete invasion taking place. Brussels now must take an interest, whether through a directive or through the European Parliament I do not know; perhaps both.

I regret to say that I have not the faintest idea whether we in the UK have any official interest or policy on red squirrels. I can hardly believe that Whitehall is terribly excited about the subject, but I hope that my assumption is wrong and the Minister will be able to contradict me. I used to be on the board of the Natural Environment Research Council, and I do not recall that the invasion of the greys was ever on our horizons. There are, I suppose, interesting philosophical issues—"Should we not let nature take its course?", and the survival of the fittest, and all that sort of thing. To argue that nature is merely taking its course is not really the right argument, when it is what we have done that is taking its course. We have allowed grey squirrels to be established in this island.

I am not really interested in those quasi-philosophical questions. I confess to being a softie and a romantic. I would like to see the red squirrel survive. I do not see this Government, or any alternative government, having much interest in the subject. In a more than modest way, a fight to protect the red squirrel should surely be part of successive governments' biodiversity activities. I look forward to the Minister's reply. I have no idea whether the scientific community can help us on this. Is it a matter of science research? One is aware of having feeding boxes of the right size, which only red squirrels can use, and so forth. Surely this is not a question of a need for rocket science. One suspects that this is not a serious science policy issue as much as a PR issue. The need for a campaigning approach of strategically sited refuge areas may be the basis for the fight back or for holding the fort. I am delighted to hear that a real success is happening in the isle of Anglesey. An island is a pretty useful place for creating a moat. It is good news to hear that Anglesey has decided to be grey-squirrel free.

I question whether we are holding our own in the Lake District. In south Lakeland we have certainly lost the battle. Three or four noble Lords who have spoken this morning, starting with the noble Earl, have referred to Beatrix Potter and Squirrel Nutkin. He was a red squirrel, and that was at Derwentwater. Beatrix Potter was an intrepid fighter and she was a splendid person. I must be the only noble Lord who knew her. I was taken to have tea with her in about 1941, just before she died. Sadly, I have no real recollection of her, except that she seemed to me to be a bit like Mrs Tiggywinkle. Unfortunately, I was at an age when Biggles was much more interesting to me than Peter Rabbit or Squirrel Nutkin. The point about Beatrix Potter is that she was a very tough businesswoman and she was a doughty fighter who did not suffer fools gladly—that is to say, people she disagreed with. She would have been hugely effective in fighting for us for red squirrels.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Conservative 12:30 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, as some of your Lordships may know, I have a longstanding interest in the predicament of the red squirrel and the plight that it appears to be facing. Indeed, I instituted a debate in this House in 1998 to which the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, responded so nicely. Therefore, I very much welcome the debate that we are having this afternoon and congratulate my noble friend Lord Peel on instigating it. I should also explain to the House that I am patron of Red Alert North West and I live on the front line between the reds and the greys.

At the conclusion of the 1998 debate, I must confess that I felt depressed. I feel even more depressed now. I recognise that manful efforts have been made by all kinds of people, and I should like to put on record three without necessarily doing so in a way that excludes credit to others—to Red Alert North West, to the Forestry Commission, particularly Keith Jones, and to the European Squirrel Initiative.

The fundamental issue that we are talking about goes back to the fact that when red squirrels and grey squirrels come into contact with each other, the reds are eliminated. Looking back, I believe that we have spent far too much time trying to work out precisely why that happens, and we have not been prepared to accept the evidence of our eyes as truth. I happen to think that squirrel pox is the principal cause of the problem, which seems to have many characteristics akin to avian flu as far as squirrels are concerned. We have been far too intellectual about this and tried to be far too clever. If the priority is biodiversity, it follows as night follows day that you have to keep red squirrels and grey squirrels apart. The evidence is clear on how to do that. There has to be at least some killing of grey squirrels. You do not have to be a Machiavelli, Bismarck or Clausewitz to know that, in politics, if you wish the ends of a policy, you have to wish the means to put it into effect. Collectively, we in this country have not grasped that point. We have not been prepared to do so. As my noble friend Lord Plumb pointed out, that has been apparent for many years. And he gave an example.

It so happens that, not all that long ago, I was reading a book entitled Green Thoughts, published in 1952, by a now almost completely forgotten figure, Sir Stephen Tallents. The book contains a short chapter about grey squirrels in which he quotes the policy of the then Ministry of Agriculture. The policy was that,

"the importance of adopting concerted action for the destruction of grey squirrels cannot be overemphasized".

He continued by lamenting the inadequacy of policies to implement that.

Governments in this country of all political persuasions—and I refer as much to the government of the party to which I belong and of which I had the good fortune to be a Member—have been characterised by squeamishness. As far as the red squirrel is concerned, squeamishness spells nemesis for this lovely and iconic creature. Those involved with trying to preserve the red squirrel in this country have adopted a policy of appeasement towards the greys. The red squirrels have had Chamberlains and not Churchills but it is Churchills that they need.

When Sir Stephen Tallents was writing the piece at his house in Kent, he saw a squirrel and some of its confreres through the window. So what happened next? In his words, "the animal was shot". I dare say that some of your Lordships will think that Sir Stephen Tallents was a kind of bucolic baronet straight out of the pages of Fielding. No, Sir Stephen George Tallents, 1884 to 1958, merits three pages in the Dictionary of National Biography. He was a civil servant and public relations expert, for a time in 1919 British Commissioner for the Baltic provinces. He helped draw up the treaty that established Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He was secretary to the last Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland and the first Controller of Public Relations at the BBC under Lord Reith. He was no Tony Lumpkin. As we live in an era when transparency is the order of the day and is a contemporary buzzword in politics, I ought also to explain that he is my wife's grandfather. I have been assured by my mother-in-law that, had he been a Member of your Lordships' House—and I suspect he might have been rather a good candidate—he would certainly not have sat on these Benches.

What did Sir Stephen do? In his own words:

"As I skinned it, I seemed to remember that in America squirrel, fried or stewed was a favoured dish. So next morning I rang up the Natural History Museum to inquire if I could safely eat my grey squirrel's remains. The Museum was courteous but diffident, and promised to ring up the Zoo. The Zoo, I learned, was encouraging but could not speak from first-hand knowledge. I wavered, but a man on my homeward train told me of a lady who in those wartime days was feeding boiled grey squirrel to her dogs. That was good enough to me".

If we mean to save red squirrels, it is no good extrapolating past policies, wringing our hands and expressing platitudes any more than it was in Sir Stephen's day. We have to be imaginative, radical and think out of the box. For a start, why do we not take a leaf out of Sir Stephen's book and follow the example of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and promote the animal as food? After all, it can be done in the interests of forestry, conservation and as part of a programme of diversifying the rural economy. As has been explained, greys do millions of pounds worth of damage to trees. They are driving the reds helter-skelter to oblivion and destruction, and the Government are encouraging shooting to diversify the economic base of the rural economy. That approach gives the Government the chance of achieving several disparate policy aims at one and the same time.

Squirrels are said to be good to eat. Sir Stephen wrote that, in Connecticut, the great chef Brillat-Savarin created a banquet,

"of grey squirrels stewed in Madeira, together with partridge wings en papillote and roast turkey".

The LL Bean Game and Fish Cookbook says:

"I believe, squirrel meat is the most delicious of all small game meats. Chicken-fried young squirrel is better than rabbit or chicken, two of my favorite meats; in addition, the squirrel lends itself to most savory stews and braises".

There are then 10 pages of specific recipes.

I am sure that the obesity tsar would be only too over-excited to support this good healthy initiative. What about celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver promoting it for school dinners? Indeed, the House authorities could put it on the menu here. My father was a Member of the other place shortly after the war. When he and some of his friends were dining in the Members' Dining Room, they found black partridge on the menu. They knew a little about birds and none of them could find in their memory any recollection of black partridge. Nor could they find it in the bird books that they consulted. After some investigation, it turned out to be young rook. So there is certainly precedent here for that kind of thing.

Despite standing here promoting it, I must confess that I have never actually eaten a grey squirrel—I do not know whether any other noble Lord has. Perhaps it will suggest that I suffer from one of the worst characteristics of those in public life today. However, I am prepared to give it a go. I invite each and every Member of the government Front-Bench Defra team to the hotel in the Lake District where I am a director—and which has, I hasten to add, one AA rosette for fine food—to dine on grey squirrels to launch an "Eat a grey to save a red" campaign.

I will feel very let down and be very sceptical of the Government's true intentions on biodiversity if, on the advice of some politically correct adviser, the invitation is refused. After all, let us not forget that many of the things we eat as a matter of course are entirely lovable and pretty creatures which appeal to the wider world. What is the difference? Perhaps more importantly, I am not the only one who will feel let down—the red squirrels will too. As I have already said, unless something radical and imaginative is done—and an extrapolation of what we are doing now does not amount to that—Squirrel Nutkin and his friends and relations are "going to be toast".

M

Eating squirrel...by choice! How low can humans go?

Next I'll by hearing some eighty year old woman celebrated her birthday with swan on the menu - very sad.

Submitted by M Bee

Photo of Lord Lyell Lord Lyell Conservative 12:39 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, what a pleasure it is to follow my noble friend Lord Inglewood. I hasten to inform him that I shall not be on the 1440 train to Carlisle. I see that my noble friend Lord Jopling is attending, perhaps to listen to the excellent and wise culinary recipes that my noble friend gave. I was certainly not aware that the grey squirrel—known appropriately, I understand, as Sciurus carolinensis, so evidently named after me—came straight in from the States, and I do not know how nutritious they are.

I want to thank my noble friend Lord Peel for putting a mild electric shock through me by insisting that there was helpful material and, indeed, that the authorities in Scotland were taking a pretty active line on the preservation of red squirrels. I declare a mild interest in that, at our estate office, we have a clan of three red squirrels while on the other side of the road—as near as I am now to the Minister—there is a clan of about seven. We have had to separate the feeding, because we have lost three over the autumn and winter. It is quite a busy road for rural Angus, but I have been able to observe, during the past three to five years, that these creatures are easily taken care of and become rather tame. Yet in all of my life at Kinnordy in rural Angus, until 20 January of this year I had not seen one grey squirrel in our area.

My noble friend Lord Peel encouraged me to see what is being done north of the Border and my noble friend Lord Monro was absolutely right; he tells me that he gets his television from south of the Border, but nature, including squirrels, is certainly no respecter of geographical or other boundaries.

On 27 February this year various bodies in Scotland, led by their deputy environment Minister, held a massive meeting attended by over 130 delegates. Figures produced show that about 75 per cent of the United Kingdom's red squirrel population is resident in Scotland. I was pleased to see that the Minister and others from Scottish Natural Heritage, or SNH, were keen on promoting their preservation. Indeed, Mr Colin Galbraith, director of scientific and advisory services, said:

"We now have a list of 127 priority woodlands for red squirrel conservation".

I am not aware whether mine are among that happy number, but before I came south for this debate I discovered, in our own estate office, a valuable little leaflet on the Scottish Squirrel Survey. It has some interesting information in it; the figures that might interest your Lordships are on weight. The survey, which has a little tear-off slip so that if you observe red or grey squirrels, you can add to the knowledge—and I hope for further action in taking care of the red squirrels—says that the average weight of a red squirrel is 275 to 305 grams, whereas the average for the grey squirrel is 540 to 660 grammes. That brings to mind a Saturday afternoon spent in front of the television set watching Six Nations rugby, where brawn tends to win—quite apart from the food. However, I am delighted that the Scottish Executive has that valuable leaflet.

We have heard some fascinating comments and speeches today. My noble friend Lord Peel, who opened the debate, gave us a quiet introduction to squirrel pox. My noble friend Lord Monro told us exactly what grey squirrels get up to—whether doing various acts on his windscreen or not. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, told us that red squirrels are pretty tame and come into her house at their height. I hope that the Government will be able to take on board much of the information that we have been given.

We are perhaps fortunate to have two lady Members of your Lordships' House on the speakers' list; one has spoken and my noble friend Lady Byford is about to do so. Normally, when we discuss fascinating diseases of either animal or human health, we are always regaled by "I shall not spare your Lordships' blushes". However, I shall temporarily spare your Lordships' blushes with a description of pustular dermatitis in red squirrels; we need not go into that unhappy thought today. I was a bit scared when one speaker—I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Chorley—mentioned contraceptive feed for grey squirrels. I hope I have that right; that really would be fascinating. Yet if people are feeding them, I would certainly worry what any contraceptive spray or material added to the feed would do to humans. That might be pretty interesting.

Another interesting fact has come from that conference, which took place three weeks ago in Scotland. Your Lordships will see that the subject of my noble friend's debate is the preservation of red squirrels in Britain and Europe. We have heard that there are grey squirrels in mainland Europe, in Italy. I have advice that they were introduced there in 1948 and are spreading, perhaps to France and Switzerland. I shall be on the borders of France and Switzerland in a fortnight's time. I know that that particular area is thick with red squirrels, which are very tame and need to be fed; I shall certainly be able to make inquiries there.

I stress once again my enormous gratitude to my noble friend Lord Peel for introducing this debate. He encouraged me to see what was being done north of the Border and I am very encouraged for those of us who have woodlands—mixed, or of all types—together with their strong populations of red squirrels, which I see at the moment. In all my life in the Angus area, which is 66 years, I have seen only one grey squirrel and hope that we shall be able to chase the others out. Those of us who might be able to take part in controlling the grey squirrels will be grateful for the advice. I hope that the Minister, when he replies, can let us know whether he is in touch with the Minister in Scotland, or whether he will be able to have joint communication.

Photo of The Earl of Liverpool The Earl of Liverpool Conservative 12:47 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, the number 10 has a certain ring to it just at the moment, so it gives me the greatest pleasure to be the 10th speaker and to support my noble friend in his search for a real and lasting solution to the devastating decline of our red squirrel population in this country. His fount of knowledge on our countryside and conservation matters is well known to your Lordships and I very much doubt whether I can add anything to his excellent opening contribution, but I shall try.

It is clear from my noble friend's speech, and those of other noble Lords, that I am not alone in remembering some of the wonderful Beatrix Potter books which coloured my childhood back in the late 1940s. I have recently read her biography; she was born in South Kensington, but it was not long before she found herself spending many happy holidays with her parents in the Lake District. She became a great lover of everything that the countryside had to offer, and when she died in 1943 she owned 14 farms spread over 4,000 acres of Lake District land, all of which—as I understand it—she left to the National Trust. That was her final gift to the nation; her own beloved countryside, given as a legacy for all to enjoy. If she had been alive today, I believe that she would have fought hard to keep the grey squirrel at bay from that land.

In 1903 she wrote her third book, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, as referred to a number of times in this debate. She was probably hardly aware of the arrival on the scene of Sciuris carolinensis, the grey squirrel, and the danger that it posed to our native Sciuris vulgaris. How sad it is that fate decreed that our much prettier and more endearing red squirrel should be named "vulgaris". Perhaps therein lies part of the problem.

I venture to ask your Lordships to extend your imaginations just for a moment, something which I know comes easily to most of us. If, in Beatrix Potter's 1903 book, Twinkleberry had been a nasty, pox-carrying grey cousin instead of a near and dear brother of Nutkin, we might have been alerted to the scourge of the greys and done more to mobilise our resources, keeping the numbers down before they mushroomed and contributed to wreaking so much damage on our native population.

Sadly, one cannot rewrite history or, indeed, children's books. We must now grasp the extreme seriousness of the situation, and try to remedy it. Thankfully, there are many friends of the red squirrel, such as the Sefton Coast Partnership, which, sadly, also has a declining population of reds on that area of north-west coastline near Liverpool. As in most other areas, the greys are encroaching on their habitat and, because they are largely resistant to the dreaded parapox virus—as we have heard—they are infecting and killing our indigenous species. In carrying out research on the internet, I came across a photograph of a red squirrel suffering from the parapox virus, which I found truly horrifying. Death occurs within a few days of infection, but the lesions it creates on the eyes, organs and other sensitive areas of the body must cause agonising pain. Liverpool University is doing excellent work, helping a group called Red Alert North West by carrying out post-mortems on any dead red squirrels they come across and storing blood samples from grey squirrels, so that they can conduct research into the transfer of the disease and why its effects are so much more serious in the red population.

The greatest challenge that confronts us, even with the knowledge thus accumulated, and assuming a vaccine could be found, is that of effectively administering it to a species which is quite shy and lives in the wild. I agree with my noble friend Lord Peel, and all my noble friends who have spoken today, that the only practical way to help our dwindling red squirrel population is to dramatically reduce grey squirrel numbers. Quite apart from the threat they pose to our native species, they cause great damage to trees, kill young birds and take eggs from nests.

However, culling greys is not as easy as it sounds. As we have already been told by other noble Lords, their breeding pattern is something on a par with rabbits and rats—indeed, they are known as tree rats by many, including myself. I shoot them whenever the opportunity presents itself.

The stark reality is that, unless grey squirrel numbers can be dramatically reduced, the reds are ultimately doomed. We have reached a tipping point, and I hope that this short debate will help give Her Majesty's Government the will to embark on a serious effort to remedy the plight of our native squirrel before it is too late.

M

You seem to be suggesting a grey squirrel cull as a possibility, however impractical this may prove. My question/comment is, why kill animals (in this case grey squirrels) who are merely following their survival instincts? Yes most people think red squirrels are beautiful, most of us know that they were introduced to our shores centuries ago naively - that's not the greys fault. Can we not instead learn from mistakes of the past and ensure that no more non-native animals (eg reptiles, tropical birds, elephants etc) are brought into the UK from now on.

Submitted by M Bee

Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Spokesperson in the Lords, Welsh Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Agriculture), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 12:52 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, this is an important debate, but I fear that the press reporting of it may be advantageous to headlines. I am sure that, were William Shakespeare in the Press Gallery, he would report someone here as having said "a pox on grey squirrels". It is that sort of subject. Grey squirrels have very good PR.

I was intrigued by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, which verged on the production of squirrel-burgers—though that might have shades of John Gummer. I am not trying to trivialise this, but in our area a firm used to produce hedgehog crisps until about two years ago—I do not know whether they actually fried up hedgehogs and put them into the crisps. As we know, hedgehogs have disappeared, devoured by the doubling of the badger population. I am certain the badger is, in fact, the criminal which has already made hedgehogs extinct in our area in a very short time.

I am delighted that the noble Earl, Lord Peel, has initiated and contributed to this debate. He has done an enormous amount of work on this subject, and is to be congratulated on it. He has worked hard with the European Squirrel Initiative; its officers and employees must be congratulated on their work—particularly Roger Cook and Andrew Kendall, the advisers. Between the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and myself, we have been able to table a lot of Questions. Many of the Answers have frankly been disappointing, hedged around with "if"s and "but"s. Very little information has come out of Defra, but this debate may stir people into action.

I do not want to repeat everything that has been said in this debate, which is tempting, but to look at one project. Why do we campaign for red squirrels? They are quite delightful native animals of the United Kingdom. Certainly, in my boyhood in mid-Wales, I never saw a grey squirrel until the age of 13. They were unknown to me. Except from photographs and what people told me happened in London parks, I did not know much about them at all. Since the mid-1960s or so we have had no red squirrels whatever. I often wonder whether I really saw these red squirrels around me. They were such attractive animals.

We can save their species from the precipice. In our part of the world, 30 or 40 years ago we only had about 10 pairs of red kites. A determined effort was made to save the British red kite; we even had the Gurkhas protecting the nests. Now the red kite is saved—it is in its hundreds, and has spread to England and far beyond. I want to see the same sort of thing happening to red squirrels. We know that grey squirrels are a pest. They spread disease and wipe out red squirrels. They must be tackled head on. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, has asked a lot of important questions about control by culling or shooting, and the funding of research. I, too, can remember getting a shilling for grey squirrel tails; that actually halted the spread of the grey squirrel for some considerable time.

For the rest of my time, I want to put what is happening in Anglesey on the record. I know Dr Craig Shuttleworth, who has done immense work in conjunction with Menter Môn, the enterprise agency on the island, not only to save the red squirrel there but towards the long-term aim of having a tourist attraction. The island has red squirrels, and that will I hope be an economic regenerator. As Dr Shuttleworth says, in the summer of 1997, Esmé Kirby and Lady Anglesey called a meeting of the island's landowners to begin the task of making Anglesey red squirrel country once again. This is an island where reds had been more or less extinct from about 1970 onwards.

The first task for the Anglesey project was to remove the grey squirrels from the Pentraeth forest, owned by private landowners; and Newborough forest, owned by the Forestry Commission. To concentrate on the Pentraeth Forest, over 60 adult grey squirrels were removed in 1998; by 2000, the grey squirrel was effectively extinct. In 2001-05, only two grey squirrels have been trapped in the Pentraeth Forest. Having removed grey squirrels from Pentraeth, the small population of 30 to 40 red squirrels rapidly increased to 100. Red squirrels colonised areas of the plantation which had previously contained only grey squirrels. In 2001, red squirrels were caught in broadleaved woodland immediately adjacent to the plantation. A litter of young red squirrels was reared within a small oak and hazel-dominated woodland. It is likely that they were the only young red squirrels born in broadleaved woodland anywhere in Wales. We now have a population of only 20,000 red squirrels in Wales and 160,000 in England.

Pentraeth is relatively isolated woodland and, as a result, red squirrels found it difficult to disperse to woodlands further afield. In order to maintain the momentum of red squirrel recovery, they were reintroduced into Newborough forest in 2004. I shall not go into that because 18 months ago squirrel pox infected the red squirrels, and they were virtually wiped out. What did the project do to ensure grey squirrel control and what is it still doing about it? How is it going about ensuring that the red squirrels emerge as the primary species in Anglesey to the exclusion of grey squirrels? Grey squirrels have been controlled on the island since 1998, but limited financial resources meant that for the first few years the project was unable to trap all the woodlands. In February 2001, the island was blighted by foot and mouth and trapping ceased until the late summer months. However, from 2002 the project was able to trap across almost the whole island. The only exception was a single estate that wished to conduct its own control. In 2005, that estate gave permission for the project to trap grey squirrels. Since 1998, the project has removed in excess of 6,000 grey squirrels. That has been done almost entirely by using live capture traps. The grey squirrels are caught alive and killed by a sharp blow to the head—perhaps that would not go down too well with some people. In 2006, it is anticipated that project staff will catch 200 to 250 grey squirrels across the island. Grey squirrels have been almost completely eradicated from Newborough and Pentraeth forests. In addition, there is a growing number of broadleaved woodlands that do not contain grey squirrels. It is difficult to estimate the number of grey squirrels that will remain at the end of 2006.

I could go on. This is a brilliant project on the island of Anglesey. I am sure that, because of the determination in carrying it out, this project will eventually be successful. It will show the way. I may be corrected, but I believe that the Isle of Wight does not have grey squirrels because it has been ensured that that is the case. In Wales, we believe that the island of Anglesey will eventually reach that status. It is a worthy project. It will bring in tourism, it has a local support group and there are friends of the project in schools and communities on the island. That is one of the ways ahead. We must target areas where the reds exist and we must give red squirrels excellent PR—better PR than the greys—so that we can ensure that that precious inheritance in our environment remains.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 1:03 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Peel and congratulate him on securing this debate. I also congratulate him on the humorous way he introduced it. It did not belittle the subject in any way because it is a small but important topic. Unfortunately, the Government are failing to address it. The noble Earl gave figures for the decline of red squirrels and said that the greys are an enormous environmental pest. That was reflected by other noble Lords. In this, as in other areas, the Government tend to duck the difficult issues and tasks that need addressing. Today's debate is about controlling grey squirrels to enable red squirrels to survive. The same would be true of badgers and the control of bovine TB, which is totally out of hand in our cattle population, and the damage that foxes do regularly. The question of wildlife management does not lie comfortably with the present Government.

I was equally disappointed by the Government's opposition to Amendment No. 293B, which I moved on the fifth day of Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill. Not only did they not accept the reality of the problem, they did not even think about it again. They voted against my amendment. The Government sidestepped the opportunity to deal with the problem that my noble friend has brought before the House today. That is regrettable.

Noble Lords have referred to their knowledge of, and reflections on, Beatrix Potter, so I shall not cover that ground again. My noble friend asked the Minister what was the cost of the enormous damage done to woodlands and what appraisal had been done. I hope that he will answer those questions in his winding-up speech.

My noble friend Lord Inglewood and others highlighted the difficult question of squirrel pox, which is prevalent in grey squirrels. It is a nightmare for red squirrels because it kills them. I shall not follow his wish to eat grey squirrels, as yet. My noble friend Lord Kimball asked whether the Forestry Commission has wildlife officers. I hope that the Minister will give us an answer. Other noble Lords referred to funding. During the debate on my amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, said:

"Scientists from the Central Science Laboratory, Defra and the Forestry Commission will carry out research work for squirrels. They started that process in January and it will test a range of agents . . . [for] immuno-contraception".—[Hansard, 27/2/06; col. 54.]

The noble Baroness said "will": better late than never. As other noble Lords have said, it has been known for 60 years that there is a problem with grey squirrels yet only now are we beginning to address the difficulties that they pose for our red squirrel population, which is now down to some 160,000.

In January this year, Jim Knight, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, announced the action plan to control grey squirrels in England and said:

"It is not realistic, practical or even desirable to completely eradicate grey squirrels - but we must control them effectively now or there will be serious consequences".

We totally agree with that. I do not think that any noble Lord called for a cull of all grey squirrels. The Minister is acknowledging the fact that nobody has called for that.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Shadow Minister (Food & Rural Affairs), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I apologise; I stand corrected. Eradication in those areas where red squirrels still manage to survive is undoubtedly needed. That is the issue that I would like the Minister to address. I understand that the Forestry Commission and English Nature have been working together and have funded a project officer for Red Alert North West to conserve red squirrels in Cumbria and that further funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund has been sought. That grant would provide funds for the management of red squirrel refuges. Will the Minister bring us up to date on that project?

I am disappointed that—perhaps for good reasons; I am not maligning him—the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, who does so much work with the Forestry Commission, cannot be here for this debate; although he was in his place two weeks ago, he did not speak in the debate on my amendment. Even worse, he and Ministers voted against my amendment.

My noble friend Lord Peel called attention to the decline in the number of red squirrels in Britain and Europe. What discussions have taken place between the Government and Ministers in the Scottish Parliament? Is a joint approach being taken? Several noble Lords have referred to the conference that took place in Edinburgh in February. As 70 per cent of the UK's red squirrel population is in Scotland—and squirrels have no regard for borders—it is all the more important that authorities work closely together. That conference looked at ways of tackling the threat to red squirrels. The Government were given three months in which to come up with plans. Will the Minister update us on that too?

I understand that Scottish Natural Heritage has come forward with a list of 127 priority woodlands in which it wants to protect red squirrels from greys. Is there an equivalent designated area in England? I follow my noble friend in asking what role the JNCC is taking in co-ordinating this plan and ensuring local success.

How is Scottish Natural Heritage progressing with its action plan, due to be published at the end of May? Is it looking at the use of a contraceptive pill, which would control future generations of grey squirrels, or is it looking rather at culling as a means of control? If it is the latter, what are the Government going to do about it?

We have had an interesting debate, and several important points have been raised. I despair of the Government sometimes. They recognise the problem; they consult and go about bringing things forward. We know what the problem is. As other noble Lords have said, we need action to address it before the red squirrel is lost to our country.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy) 1:12 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Peel, on his securing this debate on the red squirrel. I know from my fairly brief experience of speaking for my department at this Dispatch Box of his considerable knowledge of all matters to do with the countryside. He was of great help during the passage of the Commons Bill and it does not unduly flatter him to say that he has been of great help also with the NERC Bill. I warmly congratulate him too on the way in which he introduced the debate. It has been a good humoured debate on the whole, with perhaps the odd exception. I thank the noble Earl for bringing us up to date on Beatrix Potter's characters. The best compliment that I can pay him is that he spoke to us as though he knew those characters personally. Other noble Lords too have spoken with great expertise on this topic. Squirrels both red and grey have always been the subject of passionate debate, and today's debate has been no exception. The passion of many of the contributions was clear.

I commend the work of the Forestry Commission in the north-west of England—some noble Lords were kind enough to do that as well—under the leadership of my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere, who is extremely sorry that he was unable to be here today because of another engagement.

The Government and I share the widespread desire that was expressed today to see the red squirrel maintained as part of our native wildlife, but it is unrealistic to expect it to become re-established across its original range, at least in the foreseeable future. What we should now be discussing is how we can preserve the remaining viable populations of red squirrel, which, rather ironically, was at one time considered a pest species.

Although the decline in red squirrels during the past 50 years means that it is a species at risk in the UK, it is certainly not at risk—although there are some problems—in Europe. The red squirrels is protected here under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it an offence intentionally to kill, injure, take or sell the animal; or to damage, destroy or obstruct access to its nesting place.

The red squirrel is also the subject of a species action plan as part of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. It has been suggested that further legislation might help to preserve the species, but legal protection of the animal does not guarantee survival because of the natural threats—about which we have heard so much—that it faces, such as competition from grey squirrels and squirrel pox virus.

We have to be realistic. We must address the challenge of maintaining sustainable populations of red squirrel in the locations in which they survive before we think about expansion or reintroduction. Two populations are left in England: one is in the south, on the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island; the other is in the forests of northern England. In both regions, private landowners, local authorities and conservation bodies are working in partnership to try to save the red squirrel. The Government play a key role in those partnerships, as both a land manager and a funder, but without this wider support, they cannot succeed alone.

On the Isle of Wight, red squirrel populations have been protected from invading grey squirrels by the natural water barrier. The Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Forum, which is led by the Isle of Wight Council, is supported by woodland owners, including the Forestry Commission and local communities and interest groups. It has led a wide range of initiatives, including monitoring the red squirrel population and providing bridges over public roads, which was raised in the debate. It has prepared contingency plans for any incursion of grey squirrels. These plans have already been successfully put to the test, fortunately by a false alarm.

As well as managing key red squirrel habitat on the island, the Forestry Commission has made grants of around £500,000 to encourage tree-planting, which has helped create new woodland corridors between existing areas of woodland. This has increased the red squirrels' ability to move around and expand their range, as it is a species which prefers to keep to the trees rather than travel around on the ground.

The work to maintain red squirrels on the Isle of Wight is a good illustration of what can be achieved by co-operation between local communities, local organisations and national bodies. I praise also the excellent work that is being done on Brownsea Island, where the National Trust protects the well known and popular red squirrel population.

Co-operation between a wide range of bodies is equally important in the north. Obviously, no water barrier exists to protect the red squirrels, and greys, as we have heard, have advanced inexorably through mixed woodland during the past 20 years. Research by Newcastle University has shown that the red squirrels have the best chance of surviving in large coniferous forests that are unsuitable for greys. The Red Alert North England partnership has brought together private landowners' representatives, the wildlife trusts, national park authorities, Defra, English Nature and the Forestry Commission to preserve the remaining red squirrel populations.

The partnership has produced the North of England red squirrel conservation strategy. Based on research evidence, it has identified 16 red squirrel reserves where it believes that the red squirrel has the best chance of long-term survival. Management plans have been produced for these reserve areas and their surrounding buffer zones to help guide landowners and managers in conserving the red squirrel. The extent to which the area is already being managed reflects the severity of the situation.

In Kielder, England's largest forest and the biggest planned reserve, large-seeded broadleaves such as oak, which favour the grey squirrel, are no longer planted and Norway spruce is once more being planted because of its more regular cone crop in comparison to Sitka spruce. The Forestry Commission is taking action to prevent grey squirrels invading those reserves by trapping and killing them.

I understand that the partnership is about to find out if the bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust to help deliver its plans has been successful. One of the key elements of the plan is to recruit a team to help and encourage landowners in the buffer zones to undertake control of grey squirrels. The Forestry Commission already has wildlife officers in its policy and forest enterprise arms. It is also the recognised scientific expert on grey squirrel control. The Forestry Commission also has one of the largest and most effective wildlife management workforces, with nearly 100 professional wildlife rangers carrying out practical wildlife management in our national forests, including control of grey squirrels. We are also helping with support provided by the Forestry Commission, through the English Woodland Grant Scheme, which can help with the cost of managing woodland to favour red squirrels, including culling grey squirrels. The Rural Development Service has also part funded a pilot project to identify ways of supporting grey control in the reserve buffer zones. A secondary objective is to identify ways of mitigating adverse public reaction to grey squirrel culling.

As everyone will be aware from listening to the debate it is impossible to consider the red squirrel without considering the grey, which one way or another appears responsible, to a large extent, for the displacement of the red. The relationship between red and grey is not straightforward. It not simply a case of greys immediately driving out reds, as they have been known to live in the same area for up to 15 years, but in the end greys do displace the reds. There are believed to be many contributory factors to that process, and we have heard various explanations today. They include the fact that greys are more successful at utilising broadleaved woodland, because they are, for example, better able to digest acorns; that greys achieve much higher densities—up to 10 times that of red squirrels in broadleaved woodland; and that greys are more prolific breeders and, being more robust, are less susceptible to natural factors such as wet cold springs.

In addition, some grey squirrels appear to carry the squirrel pox virus, which, while they appear unaffected, can have a devastating effect on red squirrels, hastening their speed of displacement by up to 20 times. We all agree that the squirrel pox virus is a very worrying development. The Forestry Commission recently organised a workshop to develop ideas for further research. The funding agencies will be looking closely at those.

I was asked whether grey squirrels were responsible for the decline in woodland birds. Although that theory has recently gained publicity, we have little reason to think that that is the case. There is some anecdotal evidence that squirrels predate woodland bird nests, but the impact on bird populations is unknown. The issue is being looked at by the UK Woodland Bird Group, but it is difficult to design a study that would provide a definitive answer.

It is clear to everyone that preventing grey squirrels reaching the reserve areas in England or the Isle of Wight is a priority, but culling grey squirrels where no reds are present or nearby will do nothing to help the red squirrel. It has been suggested—even in this debate—that the grey squirrel should be eradicated and it has been put forward that we have an obligation to do that as signatories to the Berne Convention. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Monro, who it is good to see back in his place, told us he was the UK signatory to that convention. We do not agree that what has been suggested is the case, nor do we support the eradication approach, even if that were possible. Why do we not support it? We do not believe that eradication is a feasible option, given current methods of control. The worldwide record on eradicating small, successful, introduced mammals is very poor. Even with new methods and unlimited resources a successful eradication policy would require the total support of the public. Evidence suggests that a substantial proportion of the public would not support a grey squirrel eradication policy. By that I mean elimination of grey squirrels.

Article 11 of the Berne Convention requires contracting parties strictly to control the introduction of non-native species. But grey squirrels have been present in Great Britain since the end of the 19th century and were already widespread by the time the UK ratified the convention in 1982. They were about before Beatrix Potter wrote her books. Our policy for the control of grey squirrels in woodland, prepared by Defra and the Forestry Commission, was published on 22 January. It sets out a framework for controlling grey squirrels so that populations are held at a level that does not threaten our native woodlands and priority species.

The Forest Commission has maintained programmes for the control of grey squirrels for over 40 years, involving monitoring, research, development of practical control methods, advice, training, grant support and direct action on the public forest estate. The policy builds on that work and articulates a comprehensive policy and action programme, recognises the wider impacts of grey squirrels on priority species and woodland habitats, develops a framework and rationale for targeting action where it will be most effective and promotes new areas of research.

These new areas of research, which the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, asked about, are of particular interest, but I would start with a few words of caution for anyone who thinks that a non-lethal method of control is just around the corner. Even if a suitable immuno-contraceptive vaccine is found, we are still left with the challenge of how to deliver it to grey squirrels without affecting other wildlife, including the red squirrel. Scientists from both Defra and the Forestry Commission are following new developments overseas, particularly in the United States. They are now investigating fertility control agents for managing populations of wild animals. Work will continue, but success will not come overnight.

Suggestions that the bounty scheme, which was so profitable to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb—we did not hear from the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, how profitable it was to him—proved, unfortunately, to be ultimately ineffective and was abandoned. As far as can be judged, it made no significant impact on the numbers, or the rate of spread, of grey squirrels. In fact, numbers may actually have increased during that period, although clearly not where the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, was brought up. While reintroduction of a bounty scheme now would undoubtedly elicit praise from some, it would generate equal condemnation from others and would be seen as a departure from a humane policy of targeted pest control.

Non-lethal population control measures on their own are not guaranteed to be an effective control and it is likely that lethal control would be needed to reduce numbers, which means killing. Before, non-lethal methods were used to maintain populations at a reduced level.

I have talked particularly about activities in England, as responsibility for red and grey squirrels in Scotland and Wales lie with their respective administrations. However, as squirrels can and do move across the borders I can assure noble Lords that experts in the field work in close co-operation. The conference in Edinburgh was referred to. A costed action plan was a result of that and is being prepared by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Environment and Rural Affairs Department and Forestry Commission Scotland to implement the Scottish squirrel strategy, which aims to maintain viable populations of red squirrels across their current range in Scotland; 150 provisional priority areas have been identified and the list will be refined with data from a three-year national monitoring project, led by Scottish Natural Heritage, and forest planning work, led by FCS.

In Wales there has been considerable success—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, for telling us about it in detail—in saving and expanding the red squirrel population on Anglesey. This has taken the culling of over 6,500 grey squirrels. However, the greys remain and, as the noble Lord implied, it will require continued vigilance and control to keep them in check. In Europe the main area of concern is grey squirrels in Italy, which are threatening, as we heard, to spread to France and Switzerland. Over the past five years the Forestry Commission and other experts have made representations to the Italian authorities, including several visits to discuss the issues with local authorities in the areas where grey squirrels were introduced.

More recently Defra, with support from all squirrel forums in the UK, has raised the issue with the European Commission. In June 2005, we presented a paper at the meeting of the group of experts of the Standing Committee on invasive alien species. Last December a recommendation from that meeting for the control of grey squirrels and other alien species in Europe was passed with some minor changes.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will let me finish: I want to finish within my 20 minutes and to say a word about food, which was raised by a number of noble Lords: the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood—with an invitation that is going to be extremely hard to refuse, although he should not see that as an acceptance—and the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. The advice I have received is that grey squirrels are edible; I understand that Gordon Ramsay recently cooked a grey squirrel on television and offered it to the public, but maybe that is where the problem is. Attempts have been made over the years to encourage people to eat them. It always attracts good press coverage but it has not yet caught on as a market. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, may change all that.

Preservation of the red squirrel is not something that Government can achieve on their own, but we are taking a strong lead, and will continue to do so. Even if we fail to preserve the red squirrel on the mainland of England, we will not have given up without a fight. The passion in this House and, I suspect, of those elsewhere in the country to preserve the red squirrel is obvious.

I was asked about grey squirrels destroying our woodland: in most cases they do not; grey squirrels strip bark and can cause severe damage to trees of 10 to 40 years of age; normally less than 5 per cent of damaged trees die, but many have reduced timber value. There has been a great deal of co-operation and joint working in this field. I want to thank all those organisations and individuals, many of whom are present in the Chamber, who are working so hard to preserve the red squirrel in the UK today.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative 1:33 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I sincerely appreciate all those who have taken part in this debate. We have had a wide-ranging discussion on the various reasons why the red squirrel is in demise. I am glad that we all came to a comprehensive conclusion, that it is entirely because of the greys, and action clearly has to be taken. My noble friend Lord Inglewood made reference to the debate that he had in your Lordships' House in 1998. We are now in 2006, and little has happened. I urge the Government to take note. Good wishes and intentions are one thing: action is another.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, made reference to the European Squirrel Initiative. I echo what he said about the sterling work that it has carried out. I entirely agreed with my noble friend Lady Byford when she said that the difficulty is that the Government and so many of the government agencies will not face up to wildlife management issues. The Minister said that I was in favour of eradication of the grey squirrel. I said that I was in principle, but in practice I acknowledged that until we can find an alternative method the only solution is through pinpointing viable populations and ensuring that those are properly protected.

I want to take up the Minister on the European directive. I was a little confused by his response, because he said that there was no need for the red squirrel to be protected under the Berne Convention because there was no risk to the red squirrel in Europe. He went on to describe the difficulties that the Italians were finding and that the red squirrel was moving northwards into France. I am confused about what he was trying to say. My interpretation of the situation is that in Europe there is a severe problem and they are going to face up to the same difficulties that we are facing in this country. Unless there is a move to protect the red squirrel under the European Habitats Directive my conclusion is that there will be continued difficulties in that regard.

The Minister gave us some encouraging views on what was happening. However, at the end of the day we can have all the strategies and conservation guidelines that we want, but if there is not a co-ordinated approach embracing all interested parties with a clear determination to eradicate the grey squirrel in areas where there are still viable red populations it is not going to work. I applaud the Minister's intentions. My hope is that on the ground it will happen in practice. I also hope that the Government will continue to look towards what the Minister described as fertility control methods. I hope that they will continue to invest in those possibilities, because in the long run they will be the answer.

I repeat how much I appreciate everyone taking part in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said that I was brave—maybe I am. I like to think that I am being practical, because if I am not, that delightful experience and vision given to us by the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, when she talked about watching the red squirrels in Scotland, will simply go. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.