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Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Peel, for initiating the debate and commend him for his bravery. It takes a brave man to initiate a debate that had Radio 4 saying this morning that he would be calling for an immediate cull of grey squirrels. I hate to say that his postbag will immediately be filled with letters from irate people who love grey squirrels. Indeed, many of us in this House who prefer to love red squirrels also enjoy the sight of grey squirrels in our gardens and parks, although in a recent discussion they were described as rats with good PR.

One of the problems in the public perception is that grey squirrels are the only squirrels they see. They see them in parks and gardens, and they are sociable and friendly animals. Yesterday, I walked through St James's Park and watched tourists feeding grey squirrels crisps by hand. In Regent's Park, a grey squirrel came up to my son and me and actually climbed up my leg to look in my pocket. This is not an unusual experience with grey squirrels, because they can become quite aggressive. That is a fact, although I believe there has been a cull in Regent's Park recently, so there are not so many greys around at the moment.
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It is a constant battle in many gardens around the country to stop the greys raiding any provision of nuts for birds. I have been keeping a close eye on the nest boxes that I have put up.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, perhaps they are friendlier in Regent's Park than they are in St James's Park. One that ran up my leg bit me.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, members of the parks authorities say that a major problem with greys is that they can be quite aggressive because they expect to be fed.

As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said, the problem with greys, and the reason for the debate, is that they have single-handedly led to the extinction of red squirrels in many parts of the country. Red squirrels survived so well in this country because Britain was cut off from the rest of Europe when the ice age retreated, and many species of trees that would have made the march north did not reach these shores in time. There has in the past few centuries been a massive change in the diversity of woodland from the Scots pine and fir trees that would have been much more the norm in previous centuries to more broadleaf varieties. However, the speed at which the greys are moving up the country is a problem.

I declare an interest in that I have some woodland in Northumberland that has red squirrels. Last year, however, we found our first grey squirrel—it had been killed in the road—so it will surely not be too long before the grey squirrels arrive. I am just on the edge of Kielder Forest, and it is very depressing to think that that last bastion is under threat. The Zoological Society of London carried out a study into competition between greys and reds, which showed that it is not so much that over-competition is leading to the replacement of reds with greys, although that is a factor, but that squirrel pox is also a factor, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, pointed out. Where squirrel pox is added to the mix in the integration of reds and greys, the reds disappear 25 times faster in those areas. It is a real problem.

Grey squirrels are also a problem for all other native woodland species, as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, also pointed out, because greys rob nests, and there has been an unexplained decline in the numbers of woodland species—unexplained, probably because there has been no attempt to study woodland birds. That decline is probably due to the grey squirrels, which account also for the destruction of trees. Five per cent of trees that suffer from grey squirrel infestation die. That is a particular problem in the north, where grey squirrels are particularly destructive to Scots pine and Norway spruce—the main bastions for red squirrels.

Efforts involving buffer zones have been undertaken to halt the advance of the grey squirrel. It is unfortunate that, in Northumberland, when there was talk of a cull of grey squirrels, there was such public outcry that much of that work had to be deferred. That is an issue which this debate is highlighting: there has to be a change in public
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opinion. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest that greys could be wiped out in large parts of the country. They have taken up residence and the forestry suits them so well that it will be impossible to remove them from large areas. There would be a question of whether we would want to do so.

However, in the buffer zones where there would be a mix with grey squirrels, that has to be undertaken. It is not just the competition from the greys—wherever grey squirrels go, squirrel pox follows. Red squirrels infected by squirrel pox die within a week. Those who have had the joy of seeing red squirrels in woodland realise that they are very secretive animals. They have small, segregated populations that are particularly vulnerable to the predations of the grey.

Two other aspects on the decline of red squirrels have been talked about; first, road kill and, secondly, predators, which I do not believe is such an issue. A breeding pair of goshawks has been established in Kielder Forest for some time. Part of their main diet is red squirrels, but they have not knocked back the population. I believe that grey squirrels will do that.

I have some questions for the Minister. First, will Defra help the Forestry Commission to fund large-scale control and culling in the buffer zones, which has been talked about for a long time? However, it does not seem to have been undertaken to any great extent. That would help. The second issue was brought to my attention by the work of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. I believe that its work through Red Alert has been one of the most effective campaigns in the country. A main proponent of that was Lord Ridley—whose Blagdon Estate has done a great deal to preserve red squirrels, but I believe that the greys are almost on his doorstep—who would have spoken about this. Will Defra provide funding for control of grey squirrels in areas not eligible for Forestry Commission grants?

That work is vital as it covers small woodlots which greys can use as stepping stones in their dispersal closer to the red squirrel reserves. Defra has indicated the possibility of rolling this project out to other buffer zones, but at present there is not enough funding to employ a person to write the project which would take advantage of this funding. Will the Minister talk to the local office to find out whether money is available to finance this project? It seems ridiculous that that has not been undertaken already. Will the Minister also have discussions with those undertaking the work in Scotland and in the north of England? Policy differs on each side of the border, which causes confusion and a lack of clarity in the ways that control is being undertaken. It would be helpful if he could talk to his colleagues in the Scottish Executive to make sure that a common-sense approach is undertaken.

This is an important debate; I have been amazed—having taken part in so many debates—by the extent of press interest in this issue. I very much hope that the press will take the opportunity to say that this is not just a debate about culling grey squirrels in large areas of the countryside. Grey squirrels have taken their place and will be with us for the foreseeable future in
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most parts of the country. However, if we are to protect the red squirrel, we must make sure that areas of the country are no-go areas for grey squirrels.


Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, after the opening speech of the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, I do not think there is much left to say about red squirrels. Red squirrels are rather like quiet, well behaved people, who do not make a nuisance or an exhibition of themselves, or commit crimes, and so do not get themselves into the papers in the vulgar way grey squirrels do. I have read reams about grey squirrels—far too much, in fact, and almost all of it bad—but very little about red squirrels. Red squirrels do not strip bark from trees; damage arable crops, market gardens and garden plants; dig up bulb and corms from recently sown seed; eat birds' eggs; or eat telephone wires and electricity cables, as grey squirrels do.

I have the good fortune to live in one of the few remaining areas of this country the grey squirrel has not yet penetrated: Upper Deeside in Aberdeenshire, four miles west of Braemar. I live on the edge of the woods of Mar Estate, which consist mainly of Scots pine, a good mix of larch and Douglas fir, and—by way of hardwoods—a lot of native birch, a sprinkling of rowan—mountain ash to some of your Lordships—gean—or wild cherry—bird cherry, a few hardy maples and the odd alder. None of these trees is of much interest to the grey squirrel, but they are an almost ideal habitat for the red, of which we have a large number.

Since my housekeeper and gardener started feeding—as they thought—the birds, we have become a sort of squirrels' canteen. They run about all round the house and, in the early hours of the morning, climb onto the roof and run about playing, making quite a noise. They play on the lawns in front of us. I have seen them climbing up the walls. Last summer I was sitting outside and a slight movement caught my eye: there was a squirrel, sitting upstairs on my bedroom window sill, sunbathing. Recently, my housekeeper had one sitting on her kitchen window sill, within a foot of her. Okay, there was glass between them. They almost run over one's feet if one is sitting still in the garden. I would not say that they are tame; I do not think one could easily make a pet of one—nor would I wish to try—but they seem quite unafraid of us. Curiously enough, the cat does not touch them, preferring rabbits, mice and birds. There are a lot of buzzards around, but I have never seen one take a squirrel. Perhaps they do not care to come too near the house and, of course, they do not hunt in woodland.

Long may this happy situation continue, but I am very worried. Grey squirrels have already got as far as Aboyne, where there are lots of beech trees and a habitat to their liking. I fear they will soon make it to Ballater, where there is lots of oak. One of the troubles is that the hardwoods, beloved of SNH and the conservationists, are the ideal habitat for grey squirrels, whereas red squirrels prefer pine forest. Luckily, on stony, acid soil and at the altitude at which
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I live—1,250 feet above sea level—pine forest thrives, whereas such hardwoods as beech, oak and nut trees, beloved of the greys, struggle, except in sheltered pockets. However, it is possible to grow them. I hope those busy people who sit in overheated offices, hate conifers and interfere with everything that we do, will not force us to plant them, so creating a grey squirrel-friendly habitat. Having said that, I fear just leaving the habitat alone will not be enough, because greys can adapt to red squirrel habitat, if pushed. The only real way to preserve the red squirrel for the future is, I believe, to exterminate the greys, and it will need a very determined and single-minded initiative by the Government to do this. They would need to take their courage in both hands because a lot of people who have never known the red squirrel think, in their innocence, that grey squirrels are dear little creatures and, as we have heard, even feed them crisps in the park. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said, Squirrel Nutkin was not a grey squirrel; he was a red one. In Beatrix Potter's time squirrels were red and the greys were only just beginning to be imported into this country.

I want to put two questions to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, which I hope he will respond to when he winds up. First, I believe that once upon a time a bounty was offered for killing grey squirrels. You had to produce the tail in order to claim it. Does he know about this, and is it true? That could be a way forward. Secondly, I do not know whether grey squirrels are edible. If they were and a market could be found for their meat, that would help to get rid of them. The only trouble is I have a nasty feeling that it would be rather difficult to establish the market because a lot of people, children in particular, would say, "Oh no, I couldn't possibly eat that", just as they say they cannot eat dear little bunny rabbits. But this is worth having a look at.

12.06 pm

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