Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:47 pm on 23 March 2006.

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Photo of The Earl of Liverpool The Earl of Liverpool Conservative 12:47, 23 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 Bee
Posted on 15 Apr 2006 4:52 pm (Report this annotation)

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.