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Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, I am rather surprised that the Labour Party opposite, which professes to be the party of animal rights, does not seem to have any speakers down at all in support of squirrels today. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Peel and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, on putting the case so strongly for the red squirrel. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, seems to want to have it both ways: he wants his grey squirrels and his red squirrels, but that is not possible. If we look 10 years ahead, there will be no red squirrels if we do not take more urgent action. The indigenous red squirrel will have gone and we will have to put up with the imported grey squirrel from the United States. Every now and again I go there. In urban areas grey squirrels are an absolute pest. They are in and out of dustbins and motorcars; they stand on the roof and do all sorts of things on the windscreen, and they cause accidents by dashing across the road. A large number of grey squirrels, which would be inevitable, would cause a great deal of hardship in this country.

Unfortunately, Hadrian's Wall has not kept the grey squirrel out of Scotland. I note that way back in 2002 the Scottish Executive accepted that there was a
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significant infestation and an increasing presence of grey squirrels. That then becomes the responsibility of Scottish Natural Heritage, which is now well known for sitting on fences and doing nothing, and that seems to be the present situation. Greys are spreading north from Cumbria and Northumbria and, much more seriously, they are bringing squirrel pox virus with them. The outlook is grim for the reds and they are doomed because, within a matter of days of being infected with pox virus, they die. Further, the rate of displacement accelerates rapidly if the virus is in a woodland. The situation is deteriorating and more action is required urgently. I know that the Government are defending 16 red squirrel strongholds and giving some funding towards that end, but perhaps the Minister can tell us a little more about what is actually being done with the money in these strongholds and how successful they are.

As my noble friend Lord Peel said, at the end of February a conference was held in Edinburgh by SNH and the Forestry Commission. The Minister gave those two organisations three months to produce a plan. One month has gone by. What progress has been made? Has news from Edinburgh filtered down to English Nature about what is going on? Has the Minister heard anything? What progress can we hope to see by the end of May?

As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, we need a cross-border mechanism. Living on the border, I get driven mad by those who act as if nature does not cross the border from one country to another, as has been highlighted by the issue of raptors at Langholm and the lack of activity by SNH and the RSPB.

We want this to be done humanely, but have we considered a bounty for killing grey squirrels? That is the only way in which we are going to have a dramatic impact on numbers. People who say, "No, you can't have a bounty and you can't kill grey squirrels", must accept that there will not be any red squirrels in 10 years' time. Mr Knight, the Minister in the other place, wants this to be carried out through humane targeting and pest control—he thinks that that will enable us to control the threat. I wonder whether that is really technically possible and feasible. I hope that the Minister will tell us how that is going to be done.

My noble friend Lord Peel mentioned the European Squirrel Initiative. It is pretty depressed with things but is leaving the situation rather at the status quo. But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is very cross about the situation and feels that we have to take a great deal more action. CITES, which looks after endangered species, is equally cross that the United Kingdom is dragging its feet, sitting on fences and doing very little to deal with the grey squirrel menace and its spread throughout this country. There is also the Berne convention, which I think I actually signed in 1979. The feeling is that we, as the European leader, are doing very little to deal with a serious issue in our own country.

Mr Knight said—I paraphrase—that it is not desirable to eradicate greys completely, but it is. I do not know why people cannot understand that, if we do
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not deal with this urgently, there will be no red squirrels in 10 years' time. That would be something that the nation would feel the Government had let us down on.

12.12 pm

Lord Plumb: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Peel in everything that he has said and I congratulate him on taking the initiative on this subject. I hope that, in calling for action, we really do get action on what is, in the countryside, an important and difficult problem.

Recently, I was encouraged to note in a Midland newspaper—we have a lot of grey squirrels in the Midlands—a report saying that the Government had plans to "kill", although I think that it meant "control", thousands of grey squirrels in a bid to protect the native red. I read this with great interest, because I realise that, over the past 60 years, certainly in the Midland area where I live, grey squirrels have been something of a menace. They have made their home there. They have a reputation for raiding the bird tables in the gardens. They are a threat to native woodlands, as I can prove from some of the damage that has been done to my own woodland, and, as my noble friend Lord Peel said so well, they are a threat to the wildlife.

We know that grey squirrels are not native to Britain. They were introduced to us from the United States, where they are still recognised as "tree rats". We have to control an alien species to protect our native reds, which are in rapid decline, as we know only too well. Does the Minister agree that, now that there are some 2 million grey squirrels in this country, we should really get on with taking action to control their growth? As the noble Earl said, that number compares with some 160,000 reds. Does the Minister agree with the Minister with responsibility for biodiversity about culling by shooting and about making grants available to those who assist in culling, particularly in the appropriate areas? That is a very important factor. Will he also agree to support the funding of research on other areas of controlling squirrels and, in particular, as has already been mentioned, contraception? That is one way of taking some positive action.

It is not realistic to talk of the total elimination of the grey squirrel, any more than it is of any species of animal—such as the badger, which causes havoc through the spread of tuberculosis, particularly among the cattle population. As with badgers, it is essential to concentrate a cull in target areas. It is surely striking a balance in the squirrel family by removing the aggressive and destructive greys, which may transmit disease as they multiply—as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said, the squirrel pox virus is lethal to the red squirrel.

The red squirrel has been loved by generations raised on Beatrix Potter and Squirrel Nutkin. In the publicity that I hope will follow, there should be a realisation that it was the red squirrel that was loved by those children who loved Beatrix Potter.
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Squirrel culling is not a new phenomenon. Some 60 years ago the Ministry of Agriculture started to encourage people to kill squirrels, offering—I remember it only too clearly—a shilling a tail. I became a very wealthy young man at that time, as we had a lot of grey squirrels in the area and I did not need a lot of encouragement to do something about them. When the government at that time had paid out some £250,000, they decided that that was enough. There was no perceivable difference to the squirrel population.

We can now concentrate on some action that will deal with the issue, rather than do what was done then. Some 2 million squirrels can do tremendous damage to our trees and wildlife and, 60 years on, with modern technology and scientific development, I hope that the Minister can support appropriate and positive action.

12.18 pm

Lord Kimball: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Peel, because this debate has come just in time. Unless something is done now, we are going to lose the red squirrel completely.

I think it was 86 years ago that Thorburn's classic work on the mammals of Great Britain was able to describe the red squirrel as "the Common Squirrel", going on to say that it was very plentiful. At the same time there were three introductions on the American grey squirrel, saying that it was a pest because of its habit of barking trees; that it had no future in this country; and that the grey squirrel's trouble was that it could survive only if it had a ready supply of deciduous trees and could not survive in a coniferous forest. During the war, however, most of our softwoods were devastated for pit props and all the demands of war. The red squirrel was losing its food supply and was at the mercy of the expanding population of the American grey.

We must now look at the large areas of coniferous forest in Northumberland, Shropshire, Wales and Scotland to help save the red squirrel and to destroy the American grey. However, just to make it harder for the red squirrel, we now have the problem of the goshawk. The Reverend Mr Morris published A History of British Birds in 1857. The reverend gentleman went on to point out, without any question of political correctness, that the most favoured food of a goshawk was a squirrel.

One of the best books on birds today, Field Guide to British Birds, describes the goshawk as a "rare bird of passage". In 1960 a few goshawks escaped from a falconry centre and some enthusiastic falconers followed that up by putting goshawk eggs in sparrowhawks' nests in Kielder forest. There is no evidence whatever of their having had a permit to carry that work out.

We have the importation of goshawks but we also have an explosion in the buzzard population, and they feed on red squirrels. We need to encourage red squirrels and we need to come to an agreement to kill off buzzards, of which there is no shortage today. The Government have been most co-operative about
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cormorants in inland fisheries and I hope that they will consider extending the same co-operation to culling buzzards in areas where we want to see the squirrel population improve.

So much of the suitable habitat for the red squirrel is in areas controlled by the Forestry Commission. I believe that the commission should have a wildlife officer who can deal with these matters. At the moment the emphasis of the commission seems to be entirely on public access but if we want to see the red squirrel survive, we need the co-operation of a proper wildlife officer in the Forestry Commission.

12.21 pm

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