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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Bach): My Lords, I am not. There were noble Lords who called for total eradication. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, did, as did the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I apologise; I stand corrected. Eradication in those areas where red squirrels still manage to survive is undoubtedly needed. That is the issue that I would like the Minister to address. I understand that the Forestry Commission and English Nature have been working together and have funded a project officer for Red Alert North West to conserve red squirrels in Cumbria and that further funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund has been sought. That grant would provide funds for the management of red squirrel refuges. Will the Minister bring us up to date on that project?

I am disappointed that—perhaps for good reasons; I am not maligning him—the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, who does so much work with the Forestry Commission, cannot be here for this debate; although he was in his place two weeks ago, he did not speak in the debate on my amendment. Even worse, he and Ministers voted against my amendment.

My noble friend Lord Peel called attention to the decline in the number of red squirrels in Britain and Europe. What discussions have taken place between the Government and Ministers in the Scottish Parliament? Is a joint approach being taken? Several noble Lords have referred to the conference that took place in Edinburgh in February. As 70 per cent of the UK's red squirrel population is in Scotland—and squirrels have no regard for borders—it is all the more important that authorities work closely together. That
 
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conference looked at ways of tackling the threat to red squirrels. The Government were given three months in which to come up with plans. Will the Minister update us on that too?

I understand that Scottish Natural Heritage has come forward with a list of 127 priority woodlands in which it wants to protect red squirrels from greys. Is there an equivalent designated area in England? I follow my noble friend in asking what role the JNCC is taking in co-ordinating this plan and ensuring local success.

How is Scottish Natural Heritage progressing with its action plan, due to be published at the end of May? Is it looking at the use of a contraceptive pill, which would control future generations of grey squirrels, or is it looking rather at culling as a means of control? If it is the latter, what are the Government going to do about it?

We have had an interesting debate, and several important points have been raised. I despair of the Government sometimes. They recognise the problem; they consult and go about bringing things forward. We know what the problem is. As other noble Lords have said, we need action to address it before the red squirrel is lost to our country.

1.12 pm

Lord Bach: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Peel, on his securing this debate on the red squirrel. I know from my fairly brief experience of speaking for my department at this Dispatch Box of his considerable knowledge of all matters to do with the countryside. He was of great help during the passage of the Commons Bill and it does not unduly flatter him to say that he has been of great help also with the NERC Bill. I warmly congratulate him too on the way in which he introduced the debate. It has been a good humoured debate on the whole, with perhaps the odd exception. I thank the noble Earl for bringing us up to date on Beatrix Potter's characters. The best compliment that I can pay him is that he spoke to us as though he knew those characters personally. Other noble Lords too have spoken with great expertise on this topic. Squirrels both red and grey have always been the subject of passionate debate, and today's debate has been no exception. The passion of many of the contributions was clear.

I commend the work of the Forestry Commission in the north-west of England—some noble Lords were kind enough to do that as well—under the leadership of my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere, who is extremely sorry that he was unable to be here today because of another engagement.

The Government and I share the widespread desire that was expressed today to see the red squirrel maintained as part of our native wildlife, but it is unrealistic to expect it to become re-established across its original range, at least in the foreseeable future. What we should now be discussing is how we can preserve the remaining viable populations of red squirrel, which, rather ironically, was at one time considered a pest species.
 
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Although the decline in red squirrels during the past 50 years means that it is a species at risk in the UK, it is certainly not at risk—although there are some problems—in Europe. The red squirrels is protected here under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it an offence intentionally to kill, injure, take or sell the animal; or to damage, destroy or obstruct access to its nesting place.

The red squirrel is also the subject of a species action plan as part of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. It has been suggested that further legislation might help to preserve the species, but legal protection of the animal does not guarantee survival because of the natural threats—about which we have heard so much—that it faces, such as competition from grey squirrels and squirrel pox virus.

We have to be realistic. We must address the challenge of maintaining sustainable populations of red squirrel in the locations in which they survive before we think about expansion or reintroduction. Two populations are left in England: one is in the south, on the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island; the other is in the forests of northern England. In both regions, private landowners, local authorities and conservation bodies are working in partnership to try to save the red squirrel. The Government play a key role in those partnerships, as both a land manager and a funder, but without this wider support, they cannot succeed alone.

On the Isle of Wight, red squirrel populations have been protected from invading grey squirrels by the natural water barrier. The Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Forum, which is led by the Isle of Wight Council, is supported by woodland owners, including the Forestry Commission and local communities and interest groups. It has led a wide range of initiatives, including monitoring the red squirrel population and providing bridges over public roads, which was raised in the debate. It has prepared contingency plans for any incursion of grey squirrels. These plans have already been successfully put to the test, fortunately by a false alarm.

As well as managing key red squirrel habitat on the island, the Forestry Commission has made grants of around £500,000 to encourage tree-planting, which has helped create new woodland corridors between existing areas of woodland. This has increased the red squirrels' ability to move around and expand their range, as it is a species which prefers to keep to the trees rather than travel around on the ground.

The work to maintain red squirrels on the Isle of Wight is a good illustration of what can be achieved by co-operation between local communities, local organisations and national bodies. I praise also the excellent work that is being done on Brownsea Island, where the National Trust protects the well known and popular red squirrel population.

Co-operation between a wide range of bodies is equally important in the north. Obviously, no water barrier exists to protect the red squirrels, and greys, as we have heard, have advanced inexorably through mixed woodland during the past 20 years. Research by
 
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Newcastle University has shown that the red squirrels have the best chance of surviving in large coniferous forests that are unsuitable for greys. The Red Alert North England partnership has brought together private landowners' representatives, the wildlife trusts, national park authorities, Defra, English Nature and the Forestry Commission to preserve the remaining red squirrel populations.

The partnership has produced the North of England red squirrel conservation strategy. Based on research evidence, it has identified 16 red squirrel reserves where it believes that the red squirrel has the best chance of long-term survival. Management plans have been produced for these reserve areas and their surrounding buffer zones to help guide landowners and managers in conserving the red squirrel. The extent to which the area is already being managed reflects the severity of the situation.

In Kielder, England's largest forest and the biggest planned reserve, large-seeded broadleaves such as oak, which favour the grey squirrel, are no longer planted and Norway spruce is once more being planted because of its more regular cone crop in comparison to Sitka spruce. The Forestry Commission is taking action to prevent grey squirrels invading those reserves by trapping and killing them.

I understand that the partnership is about to find out if the bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust to help deliver its plans has been successful. One of the key elements of the plan is to recruit a team to help and encourage landowners in the buffer zones to undertake control of grey squirrels. The Forestry Commission already has wildlife officers in its policy and forest enterprise arms. It is also the recognised scientific expert on grey squirrel control. The Forestry Commission also has one of the largest and most effective wildlife management workforces, with nearly 100 professional wildlife rangers carrying out practical wildlife management in our national forests, including control of grey squirrels. We are also helping with support provided by the Forestry Commission, through the English Woodland Grant Scheme, which can help with the cost of managing woodland to favour red squirrels, including culling grey squirrels. The Rural Development Service has also part funded a pilot project to identify ways of supporting grey control in the reserve buffer zones. A secondary objective is to identify ways of mitigating adverse public reaction to grey squirrel culling.

As everyone will be aware from listening to the debate it is impossible to consider the red squirrel without considering the grey, which one way or another appears responsible, to a large extent, for the displacement of the red. The relationship between red and grey is not straightforward. It not simply a case of greys immediately driving out reds, as they have been known to live in the same area for up to 15 years, but in the end greys do displace the reds. There are believed to be many contributory factors to that process, and we have heard various explanations today. They include the fact that greys are more successful at utilising broadleaved woodland, because they are, for
 
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example, better able to digest acorns; that greys achieve much higher densities—up to 10 times that of red squirrels in broadleaved woodland; and that greys are more prolific breeders and, being more robust, are less susceptible to natural factors such as wet cold springs.

In addition, some grey squirrels appear to carry the squirrel pox virus, which, while they appear unaffected, can have a devastating effect on red squirrels, hastening their speed of displacement by up to 20 times. We all agree that the squirrel pox virus is a very worrying development. The Forestry Commission recently organised a workshop to develop ideas for further research. The funding agencies will be looking closely at those.

I was asked whether grey squirrels were responsible for the decline in woodland birds. Although that theory has recently gained publicity, we have little reason to think that that is the case. There is some anecdotal evidence that squirrels predate woodland bird nests, but the impact on bird populations is unknown. The issue is being looked at by the UK Woodland Bird Group, but it is difficult to design a study that would provide a definitive answer.

It is clear to everyone that preventing grey squirrels reaching the reserve areas in England or the Isle of Wight is a priority, but culling grey squirrels where no reds are present or nearby will do nothing to help the red squirrel. It has been suggested—even in this debate—that the grey squirrel should be eradicated and it has been put forward that we have an obligation to do that as signatories to the Berne Convention. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Monro, who it is good to see back in his place, told us he was the UK signatory to that convention. We do not agree that what has been suggested is the case, nor do we support the eradication approach, even if that were possible. Why do we not support it? We do not believe that eradication is a feasible option, given current methods of control. The worldwide record on eradicating small, successful, introduced mammals is very poor. Even with new methods and unlimited resources a successful eradication policy would require the total support of the public. Evidence suggests that a substantial proportion of the public would not support a grey squirrel eradication policy. By that I mean elimination of grey squirrels.

Article 11 of the Berne Convention requires contracting parties strictly to control the introduction of non-native species. But grey squirrels have been present in Great Britain since the end of the 19th century and were already widespread by the time the UK ratified the convention in 1982. They were about before Beatrix Potter wrote her books. Our policy for the control of grey squirrels in woodland, prepared by Defra and the Forestry Commission, was published on 22 January. It sets out a framework for controlling grey squirrels so that populations are held at a level that does not threaten our native woodlands and priority species.

The Forest Commission has maintained programmes for the control of grey squirrels for over 40 years, involving monitoring, research,
 
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development of practical control methods, advice, training, grant support and direct action on the public forest estate. The policy builds on that work and articulates a comprehensive policy and action programme, recognises the wider impacts of grey squirrels on priority species and woodland habitats, develops a framework and rationale for targeting action where it will be most effective and promotes new areas of research.

These new areas of research, which the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, asked about, are of particular interest, but I would start with a few words of caution for anyone who thinks that a non-lethal method of control is just around the corner. Even if a suitable immuno-contraceptive vaccine is found, we are still left with the challenge of how to deliver it to grey squirrels without affecting other wildlife, including the red squirrel. Scientists from both Defra and the Forestry Commission are following new developments overseas, particularly in the United States. They are now investigating fertility control agents for managing populations of wild animals. Work will continue, but success will not come overnight.

Suggestions that the bounty scheme, which was so profitable to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb—we did not hear from the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, how profitable it was to him—proved, unfortunately, to be ultimately ineffective and was abandoned. As far as can be judged, it made no significant impact on the numbers, or the rate of spread, of grey squirrels. In fact, numbers may actually have increased during that period, although clearly not where the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, was brought up. While reintroduction of a bounty scheme now would undoubtedly elicit praise from some, it would generate equal condemnation from others and would be seen as a departure from a humane policy of targeted pest control.

Non-lethal population control measures on their own are not guaranteed to be an effective control and it is likely that lethal control would be needed to reduce numbers, which means killing. Before, non-lethal methods were used to maintain populations at a reduced level.

I have talked particularly about activities in England, as responsibility for red and grey squirrels in Scotland and Wales lie with their respective administrations. However, as squirrels can and do move across the borders I can assure noble Lords that experts in the field work in close co-operation. The conference in Edinburgh was referred to. A costed action plan was a result of that and is being prepared by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Environment and Rural Affairs Department and Forestry Commission Scotland to implement the Scottish squirrel strategy, which aims to maintain viable populations of red squirrels across their current range in Scotland; 150 provisional priority areas have been identified and the list will be refined with data from a three-year national monitoring project, led by Scottish Natural Heritage, and forest planning work, led by FCS.
 
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In Wales there has been considerable success—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, for telling us about it in detail—in saving and expanding the red squirrel population on Anglesey. This has taken the culling of over 6,500 grey squirrels. However, the greys remain and, as the noble Lord implied, it will require continued vigilance and control to keep them in check. In Europe the main area of concern is grey squirrels in Italy, which are threatening, as we heard, to spread to France and Switzerland. Over the past five years the Forestry Commission and other experts have made representations to the Italian authorities, including several visits to discuss the issues with local authorities in the areas where grey squirrels were introduced.

More recently Defra, with support from all squirrel forums in the UK, has raised the issue with the European Commission. In June 2005, we presented a paper at the meeting of the group of experts of the Standing Committee on invasive alien species. Last December a recommendation from that meeting for the control of grey squirrels and other alien species in Europe was passed with some minor changes.


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