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2.57 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing the debate. He has been involved in a number of occasions in the past and, more recently, in the other place where there was a debate on the issue.

The issue raises a fundamental question of biodiversity within the United Kingdom and with a species in which we clearly have a considerable interest. Estimates that I have seen suggest that there may be as few as 160,000 red squirrels left within the United Kingdom, with somewhat upwards of 2 million grey squirrels competing for the same sorts of habitat. We have already heard a clear description of the means by which the red squirrel is gradually being chased out of traditional habitats within the UK, notably the pressure on resources—in particular habitats—but also the parapox or squirrel pox, which has the unfortunate effect of causing skin ulcers and lesions on the red squirrel but to which the grey squirrel has immunity.

The introduction of the grey squirrel from north America at the end of the 19th century has an exact parallel with other transatlantic migrations. We wrought havoc in America with human diseases and the invasion of Cortez. In the other direction, there is a direct parallel in agriculture, for example, with the importation of the phylloxera beetle into France and the destruction of the vineyards. With the exception of one small area of France, every French vine now grows on American root stock because of its immunity to diseases and particularly to the phylloxera beetle.

An excellent way forward would be to develop an immunity to the parapox virus or some means of ensuring that the red squirrel was better protected. Realistically, however, I fear that the time scale for research is inevitably uncertain, although I hope that we can do more to support the research that is being conducted into the problem.

I note that other suggestions have been made. Despite its robust animal welfare traditions, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has not entirely set its face against the need for selective culling in order to protect areas for the red squirrel. I am afraid that that is something we have to do to protect habitats and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, establish buffer zones and sanctuaries for the red squirrels. We also need to consider the habitats directive and provide what protection we can for the red squirrels in that context.

There is a real sense of urgency. The hon. Member for Hexham is one of the few remaining MPs who, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, represents an area in which the red squirrel is still extant in England. As has been mentioned, if more radical action is not taken to protect the red squirrel, there is a chance that within 20 years we will see a steady spread of the grey squirrel and a steady pushing out of the red squirrel from these islands altogether, with the possible exception of sanctuaries such as the Isle of Wight, which, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) rightly pointed out, has so far managed to preserve its peculiar advantages in that respect.

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I hope that this debate serves as a wake-up call for the Government to take action along the lines that I have suggested in improving the research commitment and habitat protection, including selective culling where necessary, perhaps with a premium or bounty offered to foresters, in order to protect areas for the red squirrel so that it may thrive.

3.2 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing this important debate. It has been 10 years since his Adjournment debate that called for the control of grey squirrels and, I believe, two years since the last Westminster Hall debate on the matter.

Although some progress has been made, it is such a pity that the Government have not done more during that period. Indeed, the present Administration have quite a sad record on wildlife management. I hope that the decline of the red squirrel will be removed from the catalogue of errors that has included the increase of tuberculosis in wildlife. Moreover, the Government have failed to get the red squirrel included in the habitats directive, but that does not mean that it should not receive the same level of protection.

It would also be helpful if the Minister could update us on developments in the research into immuno-contraceptive vaccines for grey squirrels. I am curious to know how much of the £1 million the three-year fertility control project has devoted specifically to squirrels. I understand that the Government have been encouraging landowners to cull grey squirrels in certain areas where they pose a critical threat to red squirrels, but I am curious about the fact that the proposed measures, which include giving the grant to woodland owners, will be rolled out for only three years. Thousands of red squirrels could have disappeared from England by then, and the measures could prove to be too little, too late. Can the Minister let us know what information he has on the extent to which private landowners are managing the grey squirrel population?

It is difficult to see how we can save the red squirrel without some control of the grey squirrel population, as the latter has two distinct advantages that are causing the red squirrel to decline. The first is the survival of the fittest, and the second the fact that the grey squirrel is a carrier of the parapox virus, which we have heard about in this debate. We know that the dreadful parapox virus has played its part in the demise of the red squirrel and that the grey squirrel is immune to its deadly effects.

There is an especially urgent need to learn more about the virus and how to fight it, because there are reports that it is beginning to penetrate the red squirrel’s heartlands, in the Kielder forest. If the virus should become endemic to the area, there would be a serious and possibly irreversible decline in England’s red squirrel numbers. I am consequently keen to hear from the Minister what studies are being carried out into these differences and into the mode of transmission and whether there has been any progress in searching for a parapox cure. I am aware that the Moredun research institute is doing a lot of work in this area and I would be interested to know whether the Government intend to commission it to continue and to conduct further research.

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We have much to learn from existing research, but there is far more work to be done if we are to save the red squirrel population. We are running out of time and it would be a terrible tragedy if the Government did not get it right. The red squirrel evokes considerable emotion among the public, not just because of its underdog status but because of its iconic status immortalised by Beatrix Potter. I have very young children, and it is probably worth mentioning briefly that Squirrel Nutkin, who is a red squirrel, is not a particularly good squirrel compared with Timmy Tiptoes, the grey squirrel, who, although greedy, is a better behaved squirrel.

I also note that in April the Heritage Lottery Fund contributed £626,000 of the £1 million going into the “Save Our Squirrels” project as part of the Red Alert North England partnership. Will this be sufficient to halt the decline? The red squirrel is an essential part of England’s heritage and to lose it would send out all the wrong signals and be a disaster for conservation, as well as for our heritage and for our biodiversity. Over our own lifetimes, I am sure hon. Members have noticed how increasingly unusual it is becoming to see red squirrels, even in their few remaining most populous pockets. Clearly, the challenge and way forward now is to find and develop effective conservation methods, many of which have been raised in this debate, if the red squirrel population of England and Wales is to avoid its predicted fate.

This year marks the 130th anniversary of the introduction of grey squirrels into Britain and with that the beginning of the slow decline of native red squirrels. Who would have thought back in 1876 that the handful of greys from north America, introduced into the woodlands of Cheshire, and subsequent introductions would have placed the red squirrels in the position of peril and near extinction that they face today? Indeed, three years ago a DEFRA report stated that the extinction of the red squirrel in England and Wales was likely in the foreseeable future. I am sure that this is something that nobody wishes to see.

While it is estimated that the red squirrel population throughout the UK is 160,000 and in England stands at around 20,000 but could be as low as 12,000, the greys have flourished with their numbers heading swiftly upwards towards the 3 million mark. With such a contrast in fortunes, we must do what we can primarily to maintain, and then if possible increase, our red squirrel numbers. There are so many species that are native to Britain which were once abundant and are now threatened with extinction, but I hope that it is not too late for the red squirrel.

With that in mind, I mention that back in 2004 in a written answer, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), confirmed that there had been no assessment made of the changes to the red squirrel population over the last five years, and English Nature stated that the population knowledge was poor. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether that is still the case. I will be disappointed if it is, as there are no precise figures for the red squirrel population although there are for some of the other biodiversity action plan priority species.

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Aside from Scotland where the majority of reds in the UK live, the Isle of Wight, northern England, Anglesey and Brownsea island can also boast a reasonably strong presence. However, to preserve these strongholds we must see stringent measures adopted. In this respect, I broadly welcomed the “Grey Squirrels and England’s Woodlands: Policy and Action Statement” announcement on 22 January which aimed to manage the risks presented by the grey squirrel.

Nevertheless, I was curious to know why the Government decided only this year to encourage the Forestry Commission to focus its efforts on disrupting the grey squirrel population. Only back in April 2003 did the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), say that the Government’s emphasis is on protecting current red squirrel habitats, rather than interfering with the grey squirrel. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten us on that change in Government policy.

3.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on securing this debate on the red squirrel. Perhaps appropriately, the species’ greatest stronghold, Kielder forest, lies in his northern England constituency. The decline of red squirrel numbers was the subject of a debate in another place about three months ago. I share the widespread desire expressed then and today in this Chamber to see the red squirrel maintained as part of our native wildlife, although, as was acknowledged by Earl Peel and others, it is unrealistic, at least in the foreseeable future, to envisage the eradication of the grey squirrel to enable the red squirrel to re-establish itself across its original range.

Although the red squirrel is certainly not at risk in continental Europe, its decline here over the past 50 years means that it is at risk in the UK. That is why the red squirrel is offered strong protection in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence intentionally to kill, injure, take or sell the animal, or to destroy, damage or obstruct access to its breeding place. It is also the subject of a species action plan as part of the UK biodiversity action plan. I say that in response to a number of suggestions by hon. Members this afternoon that because it is not listed in the annexe to the habitats directive, it is not protected to the same degree as species that are. In fact, it is afforded such protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act within the UK. I hope that that provides some reassurance to right hon. and hon. Members.

Mr. Atkinson: I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. There is a feeling that if the red squirrel were put into the annexe, that would trigger a greater interest in Europe in its future survival. As he says, the species is not endangered at all in continental Europe, except in Italy. People campaigning for the red squirrel believe that that would be a useful thing to do, and would help to raise funds.

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Barry Gardiner: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. In fact, the Commission has signalled a review of the directive’s annexes to update them, based on the latest scientific evidence, over the next few years. It may well be that that is an appropriate opportunity to get Europe more engaged on the matter. I certainly share the hon. Gentlemen’s sentiments.

Bill Wiggin: Can the Minister therefore give us an assurance today that he and, if he is not in post, his successors, will ensure that the red squirrel in included in the habitats directive?

Barry Gardiner: What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that we shall do absolutely all that we can to ensure that the red squirrel is protected and preserved. If the opportunity should present itself within the revision of the annexes, and if that proves to be an efficient way of achieving the objective that everyone in the Chamber this afternoon shares, it is of course something that we should, and will, consider.

What we are talking about now, however, is how we can safeguard and preserve those remaining viable populations of red squirrels. In England, there are two areas where viable red squirrel populations remain: in the south, on the Isle of Wight, as we have heard, and Poole harbour islands, and in the forests of northern England. In both regions, partnerships involving private landowners, local authorities and conservation bodies are working together to try to save the red squirrel. The Government play a key role in such partnerships, as a land manager and funder and by providing expert advice. On the whole, the debate this afternoon has been extremely good natured and focused on the same aim, although I was somewhat disappointed that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) said that the Government needed a wake-up call. In fact, the Government have been heavily engaged in the issue and earlier this year, as he may know, launched their action plan in January on the red squirrel. The Government have not been standing idly by, as he and the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) might have suggested.

In both regions, the partnerships involving private landowners, local authorities and conservation bodies working together to save the red squirrel are critical. The Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Forum, led by Isle of Wight council, has led a wide range of initiatives including the monitoring of the red squirrel population. It has prepared contingency plans for dealing with any incursion of grey squirrels, and those plans have already successfully been put to the test, albeit, fortunately, by a false alarm. The contingency plan sprang into action and there was an invasion of people with the appropriate measures for dealing with a grey squirrel incursion before it was found that there was no threat.

Grants totalling £735,000 have supported the creation of 210 hectares of new woodland by landowners on the Isle of Wight. The new woods link areas of existing woodland, much of which is managed by the Forestry Commission to favour red squirrels. The links have increased red squirrels’ ability to move around, as they are a species that prefers to keep to the
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trees rather than travel on the ground. They have also been helped by the introduction of rope bridges to cross busy highways.

The work to maintain red squirrels on the Isle of Wight is a good illustration of what can be done through co-operation between local communities and organisations and national bodies. Co-operation between a wide range of bodies is equally key in the north of England, where there is no water barrier to protect the reds and where the greys have advanced inexorably through mixed woodland in the past 20 years. Research by Newcastle university has shown that the best chance for red squirrels to survive is 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 work together to preserve the remaining red squirrel population.

Based on research evidence the partnership has produced the north of England red squirrel conservation strategy, which identifies 16 red squirrel reserves where it believes the red has the best chance of long-term survival. Those reserve areas and the surrounding buffer zones now have management guidelines to help landowners and managers to conserve red squirrels.

3.17 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.32 pm

On resuming—

Barry Gardiner: Research is under way to identify likely grey squirrel incursion corridors. It will provide a scientific base for targeting grey squirrel control measures. The scale of management already under way reflects the severity of the situation. In Kielder forest, the largest of the reserves, which extends to an area almost 1.5 times the size of the Isle of Wight, large-seeded broadleaf species such as oak, which favour the grey squirrel, are no longer being planted. Felling and replanting take the red squirrel’s needs into account, and Norway spruce is being planted so that red squirrels need not rely solely on the cone crop from Sitka spruce.

The Red Alert partnership has been successful in its bid by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust to the Heritage Lottery Fund, to which hon. Members have alluded, for £626,000 to help to deliver its £1.1 million three-year project plan. One of the plan’s key elements is the recruitment of a team to help and encourage landowners in the buffer zones to undertake habitat management and grey squirrel control. The project manager has been appointed and further staff are being recruited. Delivery of the partnership’s plans will proceed in earnest in early autumn.

We are also helping with support provided by the Forestry Commission through the English woodland grant scheme. There has been a healthy demand in the north-east for the £30,000 available under the woodland improvement grant, which provides up to 80 per cent. of the cost of conservation work in red squirrel reserves and buffer zones. In response to the questions of the hon. Member for Hexham about future funding, I am
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pleased to tell him that next year’s budget for such grants in the north-east and north-west will total £50,000. Alongside that, the woodland management grant can contribute to the cost of woodland management to favour red squirrels.

The Rural Development Service in the north-east has received an application for assistance under the rural enterprise scheme for a red squirrel protection group, which will be considered soon. Although the application was made independently, the Red Alert partnership has been working with the applicant to co-ordinate their efforts, and it supports the application.

It is impossible to consider the red squirrel without considering the grey, which in one way or another appears largely responsible for the red’s displacement. In another place, Lord Inglewood gave DEFRA Ministers an invitation to dine on grey squirrel in a hotel in the Lake district. Even if his offer still stands, I would find it difficult to say that I am tempted. I understand from the hon. Member for Leominster that squirrel was Elvis Presley’s favourite dish, but it would certainly not be mine and would probably put me off his music for a long time.

Mr. Atkinson: At the risk of a further 500 letters, I have to say that I have actually tasted grey squirrel—they eat it in America. Although there is not a lot of meat on it, to say the least, it tastes rather like chicken and is quite palatable.

Barry Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman began the debate by saying that a decade ago 500 of his constituents had written to him saying—

Mr. Atkinson: They were not my constituents.

Barry Gardiner: Five hundred people from across the country wrote to him saying that he was a cruel and evil man. I cannot imagine what his postbag will grow to now.

I understand that Gordon Ramsay has cooked grey squirrel and offered it to the public, but, as Minister responsible for biodiversity, I do not feel able to promote eating a grey squirrel to save a red one. The relationship between red and grey squirrels is not straightforward. It is not simply the case that greys drive out reds, as they have been known to live in the same area for up to 50 years. However, it appears that, in the end, greys do displace the reds.

Some grey squirrels carry the squirrel pox virus, as has been mentioned by hon. Members this afternoon. Although they appear to be unaffected themselves, the virus can have a devastating effect on the red squirrel population and accelerate the red’s displacement by up to 20 times, as the hon. Member for Hexham said. The squirrel pox virus is a worrying development and the Forestry Commission organised a workshop to develop ideas for further research, which funding agencies are examining closely.

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