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Lord Chorley: My Lords, I live in south Lakeland, an area of mixed woodland and farmland. It is quintessential squirrel country. Throughout the war, in the 50s and into the 60s we had only red squirrels and then the greys began to arrive. We have not seen a red squirrel for at least the past 12 months. So I warmly welcome the initiative of the noble Earl, Lord Peel, in drawing our attention to the relentless invasion of the grey squirrel. He speaks with great authority and experience. Today I am for once in complete agreement with him. I am also full of admiration for the wide range of knowledge—sadly all on the opposition Benches—that has been shown today.

What is to be done? We have had many suggestions today. I used to subscribe to Red Alert. I say "used to" because for one reason or another I seem to have lost touch with it. I am all in favour of Red Alert but it has recently felt it necessary to concentrate its efforts on red squirrel refuges. It does not have a refuge in my part of Lakeland although I think that they are in north Lakeland. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, may well have them in his part of the world. One cannot blame Red Alert. I am sure that it is right to go for refuges because it is, as it were, trying to protect a redoubt. So we are out on our own. We kill grey squirrels when we can but I fear that we are fighting a losing battle. Indeed, we may have already lost it.

A good local friend of mine, with whom I was recently talking about squirrels in preparation for the debate, drew my attention to the admirable organisation, the European Squirrel Initiative, to which the noble Earl referred. I rather gather that it has drawn attention to the situation in Italy and the need for a European directive on the basis that we in Whitehall do not really think that there is a problem, and that if there is a directive perhaps we will have to take notice. That is rather an ingenious way of tackling the matter. But of course, as the noble Earl said, there is a problem in Europe. It is not the case, as I think the Government said the other day, that there are no grey squirrels in Europe. There are three colonies, if that is the right word, in Italy. At least one of them is in the process of crossing the Alps. I believe that the French are already getting rather worried that they might make it to France. If they get to Germany, there will be a complete invasion taking place. Brussels now
 
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must take an interest, whether through a directive or through the European Parliament I do not know; perhaps both.

I regret to say that I have not the faintest idea whether we in the UK have any official interest or policy on red squirrels. I can hardly believe that Whitehall is terribly excited about the subject, but I hope that my assumption is wrong and the Minister will be able to contradict me. I used to be on the board of the Natural Environment Research Council, and I do not recall that the invasion of the greys was ever on our horizons. There are, I suppose, interesting philosophical issues—"Should we not let nature take its course?", and the survival of the fittest, and all that sort of thing. To argue that nature is merely taking its course is not really the right argument, when it is what we have done that is taking its course. We have allowed grey squirrels to be established in this island.

I am not really interested in those quasi-philosophical questions. I confess to being a softie and a romantic. I would like to see the red squirrel survive. I do not see this Government, or any alternative government, having much interest in the subject. In a more than modest way, a fight to protect the red squirrel should surely be part of successive governments' biodiversity activities. I look forward to the Minister's reply. I have no idea whether the scientific community can help us on this. Is it a matter of science research? One is aware of having feeding boxes of the right size, which only red squirrels can use, and so forth. Surely this is not a question of a need for rocket science. One suspects that this is not a serious science policy issue as much as a PR issue. The need for a campaigning approach of strategically sited refuge areas may be the basis for the fight back or for holding the fort. I am delighted to hear that a real success is happening in the isle of Anglesey. An island is a pretty useful place for creating a moat. It is good news to hear that Anglesey has decided to be grey-squirrel free.

I question whether we are holding our own in the Lake District. In south Lakeland we have certainly lost the battle. Three or four noble Lords who have spoken this morning, starting with the noble Earl, have referred to Beatrix Potter and Squirrel Nutkin. He was a red squirrel, and that was at Derwentwater. Beatrix Potter was an intrepid fighter and she was a splendid person. I must be the only noble Lord who knew her. I was taken to have tea with her in about 1941, just before she died. Sadly, I have no real recollection of her, except that she seemed to me to be a bit like Mrs Tiggywinkle. Unfortunately, I was at an age when Biggles was much more interesting to me than Peter Rabbit or Squirrel Nutkin. The point about Beatrix Potter is that she was a very tough businesswoman and she was a doughty fighter who did not suffer fools gladly—that is to say, people she disagreed with. She would have been hugely effective in fighting for us for red squirrels.

12.30 pm

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, as some of your Lordships may know, I have a longstanding interest in the predicament of the red squirrel and the plight that
 
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it appears to be facing. Indeed, I instituted a debate in this House in 1998 to which the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, responded so nicely. Therefore, I very much welcome the debate that we are having this afternoon and congratulate my noble friend Lord Peel on instigating it. I should also explain to the House that I am patron of Red Alert North West and I live on the front line between the reds and the greys.

At the conclusion of the 1998 debate, I must confess that I felt depressed. I feel even more depressed now. I recognise that manful efforts have been made by all kinds of people, and I should like to put on record three without necessarily doing so in a way that excludes credit to others—to Red Alert North West, to the Forestry Commission, particularly Keith Jones, and to the European Squirrel Initiative.

The fundamental issue that we are talking about goes back to the fact that when red squirrels and grey squirrels come into contact with each other, the reds are eliminated. Looking back, I believe that we have spent far too much time trying to work out precisely why that happens, and we have not been prepared to accept the evidence of our eyes as truth. I happen to think that squirrel pox is the principal cause of the problem, which seems to have many characteristics akin to avian flu as far as squirrels are concerned. We have been far too intellectual about this and tried to be far too clever. If the priority is biodiversity, it follows as night follows day that you have to keep red squirrels and grey squirrels apart. The evidence is clear on how to do that. There has to be at least some killing of grey squirrels. You do not have to be a Machiavelli, Bismarck or Clausewitz to know that, in politics, if you wish the ends of a policy, you have to wish the means to put it into effect. Collectively, we in this country have not grasped that point. We have not been prepared to do so. As my noble friend Lord Plumb pointed out, that has been apparent for many years. And he gave an example.

It so happens that, not all that long ago, I was reading a book entitled Green Thoughts, published in 1952, by a now almost completely forgotten figure, Sir Stephen Tallents. The book contains a short chapter about grey squirrels in which he quotes the policy of the then Ministry of Agriculture. The policy was that,

He continued by lamenting the inadequacy of policies to implement that.

Governments in this country of all political persuasions—and I refer as much to the government of the party to which I belong and of which I had the good fortune to be a Member—have been characterised by squeamishness. As far as the red squirrel is concerned, squeamishness spells nemesis for this lovely and iconic creature. Those involved with trying to preserve the red squirrel in this country have adopted a policy of appeasement towards the greys. The red squirrels have had Chamberlains and not Churchills but it is Churchills that they need.
 
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When Sir Stephen Tallents was writing the piece at his house in Kent, he saw a squirrel and some of its confreres through the window. So what happened next? In his words, "the animal was shot". I dare say that some of your Lordships will think that Sir Stephen Tallents was a kind of bucolic baronet straight out of the pages of Fielding. No, Sir Stephen George Tallents, 1884 to 1958, merits three pages in the Dictionary of National Biography. He was a civil servant and public relations expert, for a time in 1919 British Commissioner for the Baltic provinces. He helped draw up the treaty that established Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He was secretary to the last Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland and the first Controller of Public Relations at the BBC under Lord Reith. He was no Tony Lumpkin. As we live in an era when transparency is the order of the day and is a contemporary buzzword in politics, I ought also to explain that he is my wife's grandfather. I have been assured by my mother-in-law that, had he been a Member of your Lordships' House—and I suspect he might have been rather a good candidate—he would certainly not have sat on these Benches.

What did Sir Stephen do? In his own words:

If we mean to save red squirrels, it is no good extrapolating past policies, wringing our hands and expressing platitudes any more than it was in Sir Stephen's day. We have to be imaginative, radical and think out of the box. For a start, why do we not take a leaf out of Sir Stephen's book and follow the example of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and promote the animal as food? After all, it can be done in the interests of forestry, conservation and as part of a programme of diversifying the rural economy. As has been explained, greys do millions of pounds worth of damage to trees. They are driving the reds helter-skelter to oblivion and destruction, and the Government are encouraging shooting to diversify the economic base of the rural economy. That approach gives the Government the chance of achieving several disparate policy aims at one and the same time.

Squirrels are said to be good to eat. Sir Stephen wrote that, in Connecticut, the great chef Brillat-Savarin created a banquet,

The LL Bean Game and Fish Cookbook says:

There are then 10 pages of specific recipes.

I am sure that the obesity tsar would be only too over-excited to support this good healthy initiative. What about celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver
 
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promoting it for school dinners? Indeed, the House authorities could put it on the menu here. My father was a Member of the other place shortly after the war. When he and some of his friends were dining in the Members' Dining Room, they found black partridge on the menu. They knew a little about birds and none of them could find in their memory any recollection of black partridge. Nor could they find it in the bird books that they consulted. After some investigation, it turned out to be young rook. So there is certainly precedent here for that kind of thing.

Despite standing here promoting it, I must confess that I have never actually eaten a grey squirrel—I do not know whether any other noble Lord has. Perhaps it will suggest that I suffer from one of the worst characteristics of those in public life today. However, I am prepared to give it a go. I invite each and every Member of the government Front-Bench Defra team to the hotel in the Lake District where I am a director—and which has, I hasten to add, one AA rosette for fine food—to dine on grey squirrels to launch an "Eat a grey to save a red" campaign.

I will feel very let down and be very sceptical of the Government's true intentions on biodiversity if, on the advice of some politically correct adviser, the invitation is refused. After all, let us not forget that many of the things we eat as a matter of course are entirely lovable and pretty creatures which appeal to the wider world. What is the difference? Perhaps more importantly, I am not the only one who will feel let down—the red squirrels will too. As I have already said, unless something radical and imaginative is done—and an extrapolation of what we are doing now does not amount to that—Squirrel Nutkin and his friends and relations are "going to be toast".

12.39 pm


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