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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that seems to be very fair advice. The noble Lord will have noticed that each of the leaflets states in one way or another that it is general guidance only. The noble Lord could have quoted from a leaflet produced by his government, because the ombudsman's report covers the period when his government were in office, following the passing of the Act that led to the minimum funding requirement. The limitations of the MFR and what it meant were made clear by the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. I am afraid that it is difficult to conclude that the ombudsman is right.
 
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Business

11.35 am

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, with the leave of the House, following the debate in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Peel, my noble friend Lord Drayson will repeat a Statement which is being made in another place, entitled, "TA—Rebalancing".

Squirrels

11.35 am

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

The noble Earl said: 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
 
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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
 
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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,
 
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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,

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.
 
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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:

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

11.50 am


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