Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, this is an important debate, but I fear that the press reporting of it may be advantageous to headlines. I am sure that, were William Shakespeare in the Press Gallery, he would report someone here as having said "a pox on grey squirrels". It is that sort of subject. Grey squirrels have very good PR.

I was intrigued by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, which verged on the production of squirrel-burgers—though that might have shades of John Gummer. I am not trying to trivialise this, but in our area a firm used to produce hedgehog crisps until about two years ago—I do not know whether they actually fried up hedgehogs and put them into the crisps. As we know, hedgehogs have disappeared, devoured by the doubling of the badger population. I am certain the badger is, in fact, the criminal which has already made hedgehogs extinct in our area in a very short time.

I am delighted that the noble Earl, Lord Peel, has initiated and contributed to this debate. He has done an enormous amount of work on this subject, and is to be congratulated on it. He has worked hard with the European Squirrel Initiative; its officers and employees must be congratulated on their work—particularly Roger Cook and Andrew Kendall, the advisers. Between the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and myself, we have been able to table a lot of Questions. Many of the Answers have frankly been disappointing, hedged around with "if"s and "but"s. Very little information has come out of Defra, but this debate may stir people into action.

I do not want to repeat everything that has been said in this debate, which is tempting, but to look at one project. Why do we campaign for red squirrels? They are quite delightful native animals of the United Kingdom. Certainly, in my boyhood in mid-Wales, I never saw a grey squirrel until the age of 13. They were unknown to me. Except from photographs and what people told me happened in London parks, I did not know much about them at all. Since the mid-1960s or so we have had no red squirrels whatever. I often wonder whether I really saw these red squirrels around me. They were such attractive animals.

We can save their species from the precipice. In our part of the world, 30 or 40 years ago we only had about 10 pairs of red kites. A determined effort was made to save the British red kite; we even had the Gurkhas protecting the nests. Now the red kite is saved—it is in its hundreds, and has spread to England and far beyond. I want to see the same sort of thing happening to red squirrels. We know that grey squirrels are a pest. They spread disease and wipe out red squirrels. They must be tackled head on. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, has asked a lot of important questions about control by culling or shooting, and the funding of research. I, too, can remember getting a shilling for grey squirrel tails; that actually halted the spread of the grey squirrel for some considerable time.

For the rest of my time, I want to put what is happening in Anglesey on the record. I know Dr Craig Shuttleworth, who has done immense work in
 
23 Mar 2006 : Column 376
 
conjunction with Menter Môn, the enterprise agency on the island, not only to save the red squirrel there but towards the long-term aim of having a tourist attraction. The island has red squirrels, and that will I hope be an economic regenerator. As Dr Shuttleworth says, in the summer of 1997, Esmé Kirby and Lady Anglesey called a meeting of the island's landowners to begin the task of making Anglesey red squirrel country once again. This is an island where reds had been more or less extinct from about 1970 onwards.

The first task for the Anglesey project was to remove the grey squirrels from the Pentraeth forest, owned by private landowners; and Newborough forest, owned by the Forestry Commission. To concentrate on the Pentraeth Forest, over 60 adult grey squirrels were removed in 1998; by 2000, the grey squirrel was effectively extinct. In 2001-05, only two grey squirrels have been trapped in the Pentraeth Forest. Having removed grey squirrels from Pentraeth, the small population of 30 to 40 red squirrels rapidly increased to 100. Red squirrels colonised areas of the plantation which had previously contained only grey squirrels. In 2001, red squirrels were caught in broadleaved woodland immediately adjacent to the plantation. A litter of young red squirrels was reared within a small oak and hazel-dominated woodland. It is likely that they were the only young red squirrels born in broadleaved woodland anywhere in Wales. We now have a population of only 20,000 red squirrels in Wales and 160,000 in England.

Pentraeth is relatively isolated woodland and, as a result, red squirrels found it difficult to disperse to woodlands further afield. In order to maintain the momentum of red squirrel recovery, they were reintroduced into Newborough forest in 2004. I shall not go into that because 18 months ago squirrel pox infected the red squirrels, and they were virtually wiped out. What did the project do to ensure grey squirrel control and what is it still doing about it? How is it going about ensuring that the red squirrels emerge as the primary species in Anglesey to the exclusion of grey squirrels? Grey squirrels have been controlled on the island since 1998, but limited financial resources meant that for the first few years the project was unable to trap all the woodlands. In February 2001, the island was blighted by foot and mouth and trapping ceased until the late summer months. However, from 2002 the project was able to trap across almost the whole island. The only exception was a single estate that wished to conduct its own control. In 2005, that estate gave permission for the project to trap grey squirrels. Since 1998, the project has removed in excess of 6,000 grey squirrels. That has been done almost entirely by using live capture traps. The grey squirrels are caught alive and killed by a sharp blow to the head—perhaps that would not go down too well with some people. In 2006, it is anticipated that project staff will catch 200 to 250 grey squirrels across the island. Grey squirrels have been almost completely eradicated from Newborough and Pentraeth forests. In addition, there is a growing
 
23 Mar 2006 : Column 377
 
number of broadleaved woodlands that do not contain grey squirrels. It is difficult to estimate the number of grey squirrels that will remain at the end of 2006.

I could go on. This is a brilliant project on the island of Anglesey. I am sure that, because of the determination in carrying it out, this project will eventually be successful. It will show the way. I may be corrected, but I believe that the Isle of Wight does not have grey squirrels because it has been ensured that that is the case. In Wales, we believe that the island of Anglesey will eventually reach that status. It is a worthy project. It will bring in tourism, it has a local support group and there are friends of the project in schools and communities on the island. That is one of the ways ahead. We must target areas where the reds exist and we must give red squirrels excellent PR—better PR than the greys—so that we can ensure that that precious inheritance in our environment remains.

1.03 pm

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Peel and congratulate him on securing this debate. I also congratulate him on the humorous way he introduced it. It did not belittle the subject in any way because it is a small but important topic. Unfortunately, the Government are failing to address it. The noble Earl gave figures for the decline of red squirrels and said that the greys are an enormous environmental pest. That was reflected by other noble Lords. In this, as in other areas, the Government tend to duck the difficult issues and tasks that need addressing. Today's debate is about controlling grey squirrels to enable red squirrels to survive. The same would be true of badgers and the control of bovine TB, which is totally out of hand in our cattle population, and the damage that foxes do regularly. The question of wildlife management does not lie comfortably with the present Government.

I was equally disappointed by the Government's opposition to Amendment No. 293B, which I moved on the fifth day of Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill. Not only did they not accept the reality of the problem, they did not even think about it again. They voted against my amendment. The Government sidestepped the opportunity to deal with the problem that my noble friend has brought before the House today. That is regrettable.

Noble Lords have referred to their knowledge of, and reflections on, Beatrix Potter, so I shall not cover that ground again. My noble friend asked the Minister what was the cost of the enormous damage done to woodlands and what appraisal had been done. I hope that he will answer those questions in his winding-up speech.

My noble friend Lord Inglewood and others highlighted the difficult question of squirrel pox, which is prevalent in grey squirrels. It is a nightmare for red squirrels because it kills them. I shall not follow his wish to eat grey squirrels, as yet. My noble friend Lord Kimball asked whether the Forestry Commission has wildlife officers. I hope that the
 
23 Mar 2006 : Column 378
 
Minister will give us an answer. Other noble Lords referred to funding. During the debate on my amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, said:

The noble Baroness said "will": better late than never. As other noble Lords have said, it has been known for 60 years that there is a problem with grey squirrels yet only now are we beginning to address the difficulties that they pose for our red squirrel population, which is now down to some 160,000.

In January this year, Jim Knight, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, announced the action plan to control grey squirrels in England and said:

We totally agree with that. I do not think that any noble Lord called for a cull of all grey squirrels. The Minister is acknowledging the fact that nobody has called for that.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page