Plan to save red squirrels includes culling rival grays

Plan to save red squirrels includes culling rival grays

A government-backed action plan to try to prevent England’s red squirrels from going extinct includes reducing the number of rival greys.

Over the past 150 years, populations of the much-loved reds have declined so much that the species is listed as nationally endangered.

Volunteers, conservation organizations and government agencies plan to join forces to protect and strengthen red squirrel populations, which are protected by law, and expand their habitats.

Rival gray squirrels are the biggest threat to the survival of the species in England.

Greys, which were introduced from North America beginning in 1876, are larger and more aggressive. They outnumber reds for food and habitat, and carry the squirrelpox virus which is almost always fatal to reds.

The UK red population has dropped from around 3.5 million to between 120,000 and 160,000, according to the Woodland Trust. In England, the numbers are believed to be as low as 15,000.

The Wildlife Trusts says the species could be at risk of extinction within 10 years.

The five-year action plan, which runs through 2028, includes promoting the “humane management of the gray squirrel.”

Support will be provided for training to cull grays and “accreditation that promotes high ethical and efficiency standards,” the draft plan says.

Grey squirrels strip tree bark

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Gray squirrels drop bark from trees

(England Red Squirrel Action Plan)

But non-lethal control can also be carried out. “New, cost-effective, alternative, and complementary methods of gray squirrel management will be adopted and promoted where appropriate, as long as they are available,” according to the document.

The plan has been produced by the Squirrel Accord, a UK-wide association of 43 conservation and forestry organisations, government agencies and businesses.

Kay Haw, director of UK Squirrel Accord, said the independent: “The lethal methods currently used for gray squirrel management are classified as humane because they are fast. The use of methods classified as inhumane, such as poisoning or drowning, is not allowed.

“Grey squirrel management is essential for the protection of red squirrel populations and young broadleaf trees.”

The group is developing an oral contraceptive, which it hopes will be available by 2030.

“Red squirrels are an important part of England’s natural heritage. While human actions endangered these beloved mammals, it is also human actions that can reverse their fate,” he said.

Lord Kinnoull, Chairman of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, said: “We must halt the loss of biodiversity that we are sadly witnessing in England.

“In addition to bringing much joy to people’s lives, red squirrels are an integral part of our forest ecosystems and support the natural regeneration of our forests.”

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