Squirrels on the pill
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