Previous Section Index Home Page

28 Jun 2006 : Column 102WH—continued

28 Jun 2006 : Column 103WH

Red Squirrel Population

2.30 pm

Frank Cook (in the Chair): It might help right hon. and hon. Members if I inform them that this morning I exercised Mr. Speaker’s dispensation for male Members to divest themselves of their upper garment if they feel incapacitated by the temperature. I shall do so myself.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): It gives me great pleasure to introduce the debate, because it gives us an opportunity to revisit the threat to the red squirrel, which is one of the most treasured features of our native wildlife. I initiated a debate on the subject almost 10 years ago to the day, but since that debate not a lot has happened to help the red squirrel and its position remains as bad as it was when I first highlighted it, which is a great pity. After the previous debate my office received about 500 letters, every one of which condemned me as a cruel and evil man who wanted to exterminate grey squirrels, which, as hon. Members will know, are the main cause of the red squirrel’s decline. Interestingly, what has improved since then is public opinion on the matter. The European Squirrel Initiative, whose help in this debate I very much appreciate, has found in recent opinion polls that the public have—as a result of better information, I think—realised that the grey squirrel, which they, quite reasonably, find attractive, is causing the destruction of the red squirrel.

I do not know why, but the red squirrel inspires particular affection in many people’s minds. Perhaps they read Beatrix Potter when they were young, or they admire the red squirrel’s grace and elegance as it moves through the tree canopies of the broadleaf and conifer woods that it so likes, or they admire its habit of squirreling away its winter food supplies. The red squirrel is held in high regard. The curious thing about that admiration is that, despite its being an iconic animal, many members of the public have never seen a red squirrel. In London and the south-east, one probably has to be over 60 years old to have seen a red squirrel, because red squirrels were replaced in this part of the country by greys many years ago.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Only a loose definition puts the Isle of Wight in the south-east, but on the island one does not have to be over 60 to have seen a red squirrel.

Mr. Atkinson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for attending the debate, because, as I well know, the Isle of Wight is an important reservoir of red squirrels. It is fortunate in being separated from the mainland by a stretch of water, which I think is why red squirrels have been saved there.

The grey squirrel was introduced in the 19th century as an ornament to estate gardens. No doubt that was thought to be a good idea at the time, but since then the grey squirrel has spread and now it is causing or is likely to cause an environmental disaster for our native red squirrels. The issue of alien species has come to the fore in recent years. Throughout the world, there are a number of examples of what we have seen happen in this country. Apart from the grey squirrel, we have the
28 Jun 2006 : Column 104WH
American mink, which has caused considerable damage to our rivers, and foreign fish and shellfish species have also been introduced. Not the least among the vegetation that has been introduced into this country is the humble rhododendron, which many people admire hugely. One admires rhododendrons when one sees them in formal gardens, but in parts of the west of Scotland, as I am sure the Minister knows, they are spreading and causing great problems. The problem of alien species is not unique to the UK; it occurs all over the world. The Australians are trying to eliminate European foxes, which were introduced to develop fox hunting in Australia. That puts me in a slight quandary, as I am rather fond of fox hunting, but I can understand the reasons for what the Australians are doing, because European foxes have done a lot of damage in that country. In another example, the New Zealand authorities are making a substantial effort—quite successfully, I believe—to eliminate the possum from the New Zealand countryside.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I apologise if I am unable to stay for the whole debate, but it might be helpful if those who wrote to the hon. Gentleman understood that we are where we are and that no one is proposing the extermination of grey squirrels throughout the United Kingdom. Our aim is to safeguard areas such as the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and the area that I represent in Northumberland which still offer havens to red squirrels, which are under serious threat. Somehow we need to devise ways in which to protect some terrain on which the red squirrel can survive.

Mr. Atkinson: I agree with my right hon. neighbour, whose constituency, like mine, has a large number of red squirrels. In fact, the Hexham constituency contains 80 per cent. of the red squirrel population in England. There are other healthy populations on the Isle of Wight and on Brownsea island off the south coast, for many of the same reasons. There are a few in Thetford forest, at Sefton in Merseyside and in Cumbria, as well as some populations in central Wales, the Scottish borders and the Scottish highlands. However, their numbers are shrinking. That is the problem that we face, and the problem on which I shall focus.

Not only is the grey squirrel a pest and a threat to the red squirrel, but it does considerable damage to forestry interests. In addition, the cobnut growers of Kent estimate that they lose about 50 per cent. of their crop annually because of theft by grey squirrels. Just the other day, I was in Kensington Gardens on an all-party horticultural trip. The park authorities find that the grey squirrel is a particular menace to trees and flowerbeds and they are desperately trying to discourage people from feeding them, which I can well understand.

The news has been bad so far, but the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) touched on some good news for the red squirrel. There has been a substantial new initiative in the north—in Cumbria and Northumberland and on the Scottish borders—to preserve what we have. That is our first priority: we must save what we have and stop the remorseless advance of the greys. Kielder forest is an ideal habitat
28 Jun 2006 : Column 105WH
for red squirrels, and the Forestry Commission and others have formed an organisation, Red Alert, which represents all sorts of interests in the area. About a year ago, it had a meeting in Newcastle and determined a new strategy to create 16 reserve areas mainly in the north. They will be guarded and a buffer zone—a cordon sanitaire—will created around round them in which everyone will make an effort to stop the spread of grey squirrels. All the legal methods available will be used to control the populations in that area and stop the squirrels mixing, which is important.

The 16 areas are mainly in Northumberland and Cumbria, but there is also one at Widdale near Hawes and at Sefton in Merseyside. The partners in the scheme will band together and take every possible action to protect the red squirrels within the cordon. Recently, there was a pleasant announcement that the campaign will receive a little more than £600,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will be added to the £500,000 that the partners in the Red Alert squirrel campaign have raised themselves. I particularly appreciate the Heritage Lottery Fund and its chairman, Liz Forgan, for being so imaginative and providing funding for that purpose. It will be put to good use. Lord Redesdale, a colleague of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, is putting together a campaign to link farmers and landowners in the area better so that the control of the grey squirrel can go ahead.

That is good news in the sense that the Scottish authorities are co-operating. In the past, Scotland has tended to do its own thing. It has its own problems with grey squirrels introduced in the central belt, which are advancing down into the borders and up into the highlands. From a selfish point of view, those in the borders worry us most of all because they are coming down south and could invade from that side. We need the co-operation of the forestry interests in Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and others to make the circle round Kielder forest and the forests on the borders tight and complete. That is the good news.

The bad news is something called squirrel pox virus, which is an affliction to which grey squirrels are immune, but to which the reds are not. Not all grey squirrels have it, but the problem is that some of those that do are in Cumbria, and they are beginning to cross the border and spread out into Scotland. That could bring them into contact with the protective buffer zone around the squirrels in Kielder forest. We are concerned because two red squirrels were recently found within two miles of my home in Northumberland, and examination showed that they had died from the squirrel pox virus. So the virus is spreading in Northumberland, which is particularly bad news.

Generally, when grey squirrels invade an area, the reds disappear slowly—it is a gradual erosion. Many experts who are listening will know better than I, but I believe that it happens largely because the grey squirrel is about twice the weight of a red squirrel and eats a lot more than the red squirrel. In addition, the densities of squirrel populations vary—the density of the red squirrel population is estimated to be slightly more than one per hectare, whereas the density of the grey is about eight per hectare. There is therefore much more
28 Jun 2006 : Column 106WH
pressure on a piece of woodland where the grey squirrels are present, yet the greys and the reds are competing for the same food supplies. We believe that lack of food and perhaps lack of breeding space causes the reds’ physical condition to deteriorate, so that they die over the winter or fail to reproduce because the females’ fertility is affected by their poor physical condition. When squirrel pox virus starts to spread, however, the decline becomes 20 times greater and the population crashes very quickly. It is an immediate and serious threat to the future of the red squirrel.

The argument is not simply a UK-centric one. The red squirrel is common throughout Europe and, I believe, in part of Asia. Red squirrels are all slightly different but they are all red, though some in parts of Germany they look black. They are part of the European wildlife scene, whereas greys were introduced into the UK and Ireland—where they are also a problem. They were introduced into Italy just after the war, in 1948, and they have spread so that it is estimated that there are now some 8 million in northern Italy. There is a danger that they will spread northwards into and over the Alps—like Hannibal—and once they achieve that they will be present in France and Switzerland and throughout Europe. The Italian Government had not done a lot about the problem, but the European Squirrel Initiative tells me that following a helpful meeting the Italian Government have decided to take action against the spread of greys. As with everything in life there is usually a commercial interest involved. The advent of the greys in part of Italy where there is a large hazelnut industry has concentrated minds, because the industry regards them as a threat to an important crop in the Italian economy. It is good news that Europeans are taking an interest.

I do not wish to become a bore, but there are some slight complications with which the Minister may be able to help. One way forward that we have identified is to get some European money to help to fund research projects that will benefit the squirrel population in Europe and the UK. The Berne convention protects the European squirrel—European squirrels are listed in appendix 3 of the convention. For reasons that we do not understand, however, the 1992 habitats directive, which introduced the Berne convention into European domestic legislation, does not list the red squirrel in its annexes. The Berne convention and the habitats directive put an obligation on national authorities to safeguard endangered species and to tackle introduction of alien species. If the Government could persuade the European Commission to add the red squirrel to the European directive, we could consider the issue on a European basis, which could have helpful repercussions for research funding.

The Government can help in a number of respects—some small, but others more important. The first—the most important and most immediate—relates to Government help with funding for research into the squirrel pox virus. The problem is that we do not know how the virus is transmitted, and there is only circumstantial, rather than positive evidence about how it affects the red. We know that it does affect the red, because the red population crashes, but, scientifically, there is no link. We know from tests that greys have antibodies to the virus, so we can see that they have had it but not been affected. However, no one knows where
28 Jun 2006 : Column 107WH
in the animal’s body the virus is kept, how it is translated—perhaps it is at feeding sites—or how it has moved from the grey to the red.

I am pleased to say that considerable research is going on at the Moredun research institute in Edinburgh and at Liverpool university. The problem is that the researchers are on short-term contracts, and if we do not get research funding, there is a danger that those contracts will run out before any progress has been made. I therefore make a plea to the Minister to see whether we can find some funds—they will not be extensive—so that those research programmes can carry on and find out much more about the pox virus. Once we understand how it is translated from the grey to the red, we can start to do research on developing a vaccine to help the red squirrel, which would be of great interest.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could also help through its woodland grant programme. It currently gives out woodland grants which, in areas where there are red squirrels, make allowances for grey squirrel control. The difficulty is that the grants are cash-limited, so there is no guarantee that somebody who has a grant now will get continue to get one; that will depend on how much money there is in the budget in the next round. Of course, it was always thus in government, but hon. Members will understand that that would lead to a break in the continuity of grey squirrel control. In addition, small woods—those covering less than 3 hectares, although I might be wrong about the size—are not included in the woodland grant schemes. However, grey squirrels use small broadleaf woods as a stepping stone into new territory, and it would be extremely helpful if the Minister could see whether there was any way of giving some of the grant money for grey squirrel control to owners of small woodlands.

I mentioned listing the red squirrel in the habitats directive, but I hope that the Minister will also give us more support in our search for the holy grail—a method of restricting grey squirrels. I am not advocating a complete cull or slaughter of grey squirrels, which would be totally pointless, given the size of the population. One could not exterminate them using normal means of control such as shooting and trapping. Scientists across the world who deal with introduced alien species are trying to find an immuno-contraception method—a way of interfering with the fertility of the animal. If they can develop such a method, it would be the answer to the problem of the grey squirrel population. We would not be slaughtering the greys; instead, they would slowly die out in the areas where we used that technique. That would allow us to pick areas that were suitable for the reintroduction of the red and then to carry a gentle programme of humane eradication of the grey squirrel population there.

Work was done on that system at Sheffield university, and much was made of it 10 years ago when I had a debate on this issue, but that work came to an end. However, the Central Science Laboratory in York, with the help of some DEFRA funding, is looking again at the system. The Australians have been trying for years to introduce it among rabbits, but without success. It is something that science needs to pursue it if we are to get rid of the alien species that cause so much damage to our native species.

28 Jun 2006 : Column 108WH

We need to make a real effort to save the red squirrel. The new sanctuaries around the country will be our last chance. If they are invaded and the march of the greys continues, the gloomy prediction of some scientists, that the red squirrel population in this country will have died out within 20 years, will be realised. I think that we would all say that that would be a great tragedy.

2.50 pm

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I commend the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on his persistence, coming back to the subject 10 years later to point out that the situation has become worse in the meantime, with the invasion of greys into the areas of red squirrel population, which were once more widespread in Northumberland than they are today. I well remember often seeing red squirrels in the Tyne valley, for example, where I believe that greys are now to be found. We hope that Kielder forest will remain a major sanctuary, and across the north of Northumberland there are a number of smaller woodland areas where we still have red squirrels. We do not want to see that territory taken over by greys.

Grey squirrels are a feature of the landscape of much of the United Kingdom, and clearly it would be neither possible nor popular to remove them entirely. In many parts of the country, they are quite natural. They are the only squirrel that people see, people enjoy seeing them and they are fascinating creatures. However, in those areas where we still have red squirrels it is vital under any interpretation of biodiversity that we retain them. That will require tough action, such as the rigid maintenance of sanctuary areas and the buffer zones around them, and definite action to ensure that any arrival of greys into those areas is dealt with quickly. Research such as that mentioned by the hon. Gentleman offers us considerable possibilities for the future. Finally, we need urgently to find some way to deal with squirrel pox. What a bitter blow it was when the news came to those in Northumberland who have made such assiduous efforts over long periods to try to preserve the habitat of the reds that there was another threat to their survival.

I hope that the population in the Isle of Wight, represented here by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), can be sustained. Species have crossed stretches of water before now, although I am not sure whether there have been serious grey sightings on the island. Keeping species out is that much more difficult when the only barrier is a land barrier.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Hexham has secured this debate again. I welcome the continued efforts of volunteers and volunteer organisations and the part that they are playing, and I plead for Government recognition of the problem and for Government support, resources—not enormous resources but enough to help with the essential research needs—and a willingness to support the decisive action that will need to be taken where greys directly threaten those few remaining sanctuary areas that we must keep for red squirrels.

28 Jun 2006 : Column 109WH
2.53 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I had not intended to make a speech in this debate, but I see that there might be a moment or two to spare and I thought that I would mention one or two courses of action that I cannot recommend to every part of the country but that we have found useful on the Isle of Wight.

The first, of course, was the beneficial effect of global warming, when the island was separated from the mainland of the United Kingdom. That is not a course of action whose use I advocate in other parts of the country, but it has meant that we have had some immunity from other diseases. Bovine TB, for example, is much less prevalent on the island and, thankfully, foot and mouth did not come to the island during the most recent outbreak because people were very vigilant. The red squirrel has been protected by the stretch of water that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned.

I would also like to congratulate and place on the record my appreciation of the Wight Squirrel Project—note the spelling, in case the colours should get further mixed up. The project keeps a close eye on the welfare and well-being of red squirrels on the island. All my constituents want the red squirrel to continue to thrive and they are worried by any report that grey squirrels have been seen. The sighting or putative sighting of a grey squirrel is a matter of great concern: it is reported in the local papers and people make a great effort to find the offending animal. Recently, an acquaintance of mine was successfully prosecuted for spreading rumours about the importation on to the island of grey squirrels—the New Labour equivalent of spreading alarm and despondency. We take the matter very seriously.

The only specific point that I want to make is about habitat. He may have done so, but I did not hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) mention in particular what habitats are more likely to support red squirrel populations than grey squirrel populations. My understanding is that coniferous forests are more likely than deciduous forests to support the grey squirrel. I hope that any further work of the Government and the Forestry Commission will give appropriate provision.

Mr. Atkinson: It is the other way round. The red squirrel likes conifers. They appear to prosper in conifers, perhaps because they are smaller than greys and are able to extract seeds from spruce trees and such, whereas the greys are bigger and perhaps more clumsy. The reds seem to do better with conifers, which is why Kielder forest, for example, is going to be a reserve.

Mr. Turner: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That probably explains why I—or, rather, my dog—have found them in Northwood park in Cowes. I am pleased to say that squirrels are faster than terriers. There are a number of excellent species of coniferous conifers in Northwood park.

Red squirrels are widespread throughout the island, easy to see both in daylight and on reasonably light evenings. They are a great tourist attraction. If you want to see a red squirrel, Mr. Cook, I recommend that you, or any hon. Member, come to the island. You would not have to walk far from a convenient hostelry to see one.

Next Section Index Home Page