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Earl Peel: Does my noble friend agree that the muntjac is as good to eat as any deer? It is absolutely delicious.

Lord Dixon-Smith: It is certainly good to eat.

5.45 pm

Lord Rotherwick: I rise to support my noble friends Lady Byford and Lord Peel and all those who have argued against that environmental pest, the grey squirrel. It seems extraordinary that we are creating a body, Natural England, to look after the wildlife of the UK. We talk about pesticides that are harmful to wildlife, the protection of birds and all the rest, yet we have done virtually nothing about that character, which has such a blackened name that he is known as an environmental pest—the grey squirrel. I have the privilege of being a caretaker of SSSIs. The one thing on which English Nature and the Forestry Commission will agree, when we talk about it, is that the grey squirrel is very damaging to the environment. In fact, it is questionable whether we could continue to have a high canopy in the SSSIs if we were not to control the grey squirrel. We control the grey squirrel by all the accepted control methods. We kill thousands of grey squirrels per year, year on year. If we were to stop for one year we would be back to square one. It is so brilliant a survivor that any control over it has to be maintained year on year.

I am glad to hear that the Government have leaked through the media that they are intending to control the grey squirrel because of songbirds, but I hope they will also consider controlling it because of the rest of the damage that it causes to our natural environment. What worries me is whether when they come forward with the controls they will say how many years they will control it for, because there seems to me no point in spending a great deal of money to control the grey squirrels one year when the next year the grey squirrel will carry on doing the damage as normal.
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I also mention briefly the songbird trust: a new trust that has been set up recently that is looking into the damage grey squirrels do to songbirds. It will be particularly enlightening when its research comes forth in a year or so. I would also like to say to my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith that, while I agree with his statements, the muntjac is perhaps one of the best eating deer. I strongly suggest that the more aggressive shooting management of it might be to the enjoyment of all.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, seems to be the only person other than myself who has read about—I thought it was the Kamchatka lobster—the creature introduced by Stalin to the north of Norway which is marching down. I suggest that when it reaches a point we can have it caught by Scots, perhaps he and I can have a lobster dinner together—it sounds very appealing.

The noble Baroness asked why the red squirrel is not added to CITES. That would not give it any protection. CITES is about trade. No one is trading in red squirrels, so that does not concern it. The red squirrel is protected by being listed in Schedule 5 to the 1981 Act and it is illegal to sell any without a licence. Obviously, that is important.

The Forestry Commission will support local owners with grants where woodland owners want to take action. The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, demonstrated that the species of the grey squirrel is not protected under the 1981 Act, so anyone can undertake control measures. It is listed in Schedule 9, making it an offence for it to be released into the wild. It has been subject to the provisions of the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932 by the Grey Squirrels (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order 1937/478.

Recent developments in other countries, especially the United States, offer the prospect of the practical application of immuno-contraceptives, which has justified new research. 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.

Earl Peel: Can the noble Baroness be more specific about that? What particular research is she talking about?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Research into immuno-contraception—did I fail to say that? I thought that the noble Earl had asked about immuno-contraceptive work, which is going on.

The amendments would not add anything to the work that the Forestry Commission has launched, setting out a future framework for control. As I said, the Forestry Commission supports partnerships and co-operative action in areas of critical threat. This subject has been raised before in your Lordships' House. There was a spate of Questions on the fate of the grey squirrel, which it was my pleasure to be able to answer. The last Question was asked about five
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years ago. Following that, I received a letter from a woman who was researching the history of grey and red squirrels who lived in Sheffield to ask whether I was aware that Scottish landowners launched an organisation at the beginning of the previous century whose sole aim was completely to exterminate red squirrels from Scotland and that it exterminated 60,000 of them. I introduce that just to show that I read letters sent by members of the public.

The Forestry Commission will support action. The International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments was signed on 13 February 2004 and I will write to the noble Baroness giving the details of that convention. Great effort is made in specific areas, such as Kielder, in the north-east, to trap and kill grey squirrels using poisoned bait. Grey squirrels are not protected and may be killed by landowners.

It is not that we are not taking the issue seriously. Many grey squirrels are present on land that is not owned by the Government. The Government have no power to invade people's property to exterminate grey squirrels. They are not protected if landowners wish to do so.

Earl Peel: To clarify a point that the noble Baroness made, she said that the Forestry Commission would support action. I was rather hoping that the Forestry Commission might lead from the front and encourage people—landowners and farmers—actively to get involved in comprehensive schemes to try to eradicate the grey squirrel. Unless there is firm action by the Government and their agencies, it simply will not happen.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: We give advice on best practice for control. It is not my experience that people are unaware of their ability—I cite the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick—to exterminate the grey squirrels on their land. The Forestry Commission gives information about how that may be done.

Lord Rotherwick: I support my noble friend Lord Peel. I have written to the chairman of the Forestry Commission asking him whether, in the magazine that it publishes so frequently, in telling people where they can go for recreation, it could also inform them of the pests in the forest, such as the grey squirrel, so that the general public would have a better understanding of the damage that it does. If the public perceive it as a friend, they may not have the trees and great high canopy forests that they go to see on their recreational days out.

Lord Dixon-Smith: The fact that many people try to control grey squirrels illustrates the scale of the problem. My noble friend Lord Rotherwick said that on his estates, many thousands of grey squirrels are killed every year but the fact is that, as with the rabbit, there are so many grey squirrels around that when you kill one, one immediately comes in from next door. We need a really concerted programme across a very wide
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area—especially in areas where one is attempting to defend red squirrels. There will not be a successful preservation scheme without a comprehensive slaughter scheme. The two must go together; otherwise, grey squirrels will continue their march northwards. It is not a simple subject.

Baroness Byford: I am very grateful to all Members of the Committee who have contributed to this important debate. I must say that I am slightly disappointed by the Minister's response. I shall deal with that specifically. My noble friend Lord Peel is quite right: the Government have launched action, but that is for the future. At this stage, I do not think that they quite understand the seriousness of the situation. The Minister says, "It is up to landowners; they can do it". As my noble friend rightly pointed out, unless there is a concerted effort, it will not address the problem.

Over the past few months, at least 16 or 17 articles in the press have debated the question of the control of grey squirrels and the demise of red squirrels. We have not fully debated this afternoon the question of how one controls grey squirrels. There are legal methods of controlling them: the Minister mentioned contraception in food, which is one way. You can trap them; you can shoot them; you can kill them in many ways.

I must tell the Minister that the general public is resistant to mass culling. It is looking for more action from the Government to ensure that research is carried on and that development of some sort of contraception is the main aim. Most of us would agree with that. It is a serious matter about which I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, would have spoken at great length.

Although the Minister says that the Government do not own many properties, the Forestry Commission owns a lot of land. The Government may say that it is at arm's length from them, but someone owns the Forestry Commission. Some of my noble friends own land that has forest or woodland on it and they will try to do what they can, but the big area where the grey squirrel is obviously an increasing threat is that of the Forestry Commission. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rotherwick for clearly defining the enormity of the problem that he faces in trying to control and land-manage his tree plantations and his difficult struggle to control grey squirrels.

As I said, I listened to the Minister with great care. I am disappointed. Before I move on, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith for raising the question of muntjac. I do not live in a very wooded area, but we have two regular visitors of muntjac to our garden and the trees around. Frankly, they are a pest. I know that research will be done, but the Government's lack of initiative, drive and action forces me to beg leave to test the opinion of the House.

6 pm

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 293B) shall be agreed to?
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Their Lordships divided: Contents, 104; Not-Contents, 133.

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