Wildcats could return to take on squirrels
Whitehall adviser offers to fund reintroduction of breed not seen in England for a century
WILDCATS could be reintroduced to England to help cull grey squirrels after a millionaire Whitehall adviser to Michael Gove offered to fund a scheme.
Ben Goldsmith, who has already spent £200,000 on supporting the reintroduction of beavers to southern England, said he was willing to bankroll the reintroduction of wildcats.
Government sources said Mr Gove, the Environment Secretary who championed the reintroduction of beavers last year, is “open to the idea”.
Tens of thousands of wildcats once roamed Britain before they were hunted and killed from the 1700s onwards, due to fears they would target lambs, rabbits and poultry.
The last English wildcat population was wiped out on Exmoor near the River Exe just over a century ago. Only a small population now survives in the north of Scotland.
Mr Goldsmith told The Sunday Telegraph: “We have a duty to put right moral wrongs from the past. They are non-controversial. They are pretty small and are not going to harm farming interests. A healthy population lives at pretty low densities.”
Mr Goldsmith, a City financier and Tory donor who was appointed to the board of Mr Gove’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last month, said he would financially support environmentalists wanted to reintroduce wildcats.
Derek Gow, the UK’s leading expert on mammal re-introductions, has already drawn up a briefing for ministers ahead of a meeting with nature conservation organisations next month.
Mr Goldsmith continued: “Some of the smaller mammal species and bird species that have been missing could pretty easily be brought back without impacting much on people’s way of life.”
Any reintroduction of wildcats to England would be done in conjunction who with farmers and local people, to try to ensure there would be no impact on crops or livestock.
Mr Gow said forestry organisations were very keen on the idea, and that wildcats were “absolutely not a species that presents anyone with a problem. They are a small mammal specialist hunter, hunting rabbits, field voles and grey squirrels.
“Grey squirrels exist at very high density quite commonly. These cats would certainly kill them.”
He added: “One of the reasons why grey squirrels do such damage in forest environments is that we have taken out the predators.”
Ministers told MPs last month that the Government is spending nearly £100,000 of public money this year and last year on developing “a contraceptive for grey squirrels” to try to keep numbers down.
But Claire Robinson, the National Farmers’ Union countryside adviser, said: “Any species introduction, particularly if it has not been in this country for hundreds of years, can have a massive impact on the many benefits that farming and the countryside deliver.”