Squir­rels on the pill

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country -

IN­VA­SIVE grey squir­rels should be ster­ilised to pro­tect the reds and save mil­lions of broadleaf trees, says The Prince of Wales, who sup­ports a Gov­ern­ment-backed oral con­tra­cep­tive un­veiled last week, a hu­mane al­ter­na­tive to culling. Greys are des­ig­nated as ver­min and any­one can kill them—they carry a virus fa­tal to reds, whose Bri­tish num­bers are now only 140,000, and strip bark from trees, ex­pos­ing them to dis­ease. In the form of choco­late spread, the con­tra­cep­tive would be put out in bait traps sturdy enough for only the stronger grey to ac­cess—red squir­rels, as well as smaller crea­tures such as voles and dormice, would be safe. The ef­fect would last sev­eral years and will pre­vent mil­lions of births. Sci­en­tists say grey num­bers could be re­duced by 70% in four years and even­tu­ally 90%, from 3.5 mil­lion to fewer than 300,000—the con­tra­cep­tion could also be used on bad­gers and wild boar.

‘This will be a very im­por­tant weapon in the ar­moury,’ com­ments Lord Kin­noull, chair­man of the Squirrel Ac­cord (www.squir­relac­cord.uk), which is seek­ing £1 mil­lion to fi­nance a five-year pro­gramme to test and li­cense the con­tra­cep­tion.

In the mean­time, a dif­fer­ence can still be made. The Wildlife Trusts is hav­ing its big­gest re­cruit­ment drive for vol­un­teers to save the UK’S last red squir­rels. It hopes to in­crease the squad from 500 to 5,000. ‘In most of the UK, there are only a hand­ful of refuges left,’ ex­plains Dr Cath­leen Thomas of Red Squir­rels United. ‘With­out help, this trea­sured crea­ture could be ex­tinct within 35 years.’ Tasks will in­clude set­ting up cam­era traps and speedy re­port­ing of greys mov­ing into reds’ ar­eas. Dr Mel Tonkin of Sav­ing Scot­land’s Red Squir­rels adds: ‘Our work since 2009 shows that, through tar­geted con­trol of grey squir­rels, it is pos­si­ble to re­verse the de­cline of our na­tive reds and help them to return to former ter­ri­to­ries.’

On the March 7–8, Red Squir­rels United will hold a Red Squirrel Knowl­edge Fair. For fur­ther in­for­ma­tion and to vol­un­teer, visit www.red­squir­rel­sunited.org.uk

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