By Ollie Heptinstall and Charlie House
Are Bournemouth’s grey squirrels in danger? Environmental secretary, Michael Gove, agreed with members of the House of Lords that the animals need to be culled because they are endangering large areas of forestry in England.
Grey squirrels often kill trees because they strip the bark of saplings. They’ve also wiped out the native red squirrels in the majority of the UK.
Dr Craig Shuttleworth of Bangor University believes their numbers have to be controlled.
“The government and Michael Gove have no choice but to control grey squirrels. It’s necessary because they’re very damaging to the environment. We know they cause £14 million worth of damage to the economy every year, he said.
“They damage domestic properties. They damage trees by stripping bark. And of course they’ve caused the decline and extinction of red squirrels. That’s why you don’t have any red squirrels in the south.”
However, Natalia Doran, from the group Urban Squirrels, disagrees with culling.
“We’re talking about sentient creatures and they therefore deserve moral consideration. We’re not just talking about just cutting the grass or removing some benches,” she said.
“The Forestry Commission actually conducted an investigation into grey squirrel damage and they’ve found the damage to be 5% at the most, which is statistically acceptable. The threshold for destruction is 30%.
A recent study shows that UK currently inhabits around three million grey squirrels. Shuttleworth says that culling them isn’t anything new:
“There will be people killing grey squirrels in Dorset to protect woodland now. And they will have been for forever and a day going back. In the countryside grey squirrels are being controlled. so it might sound as if this is a new initiative, as if there was nothing going on before it, but it’s already happening.”
One less drastic method that has been suggested is to introduce an oral contraceptive, as is being currently developed by Defra in Yorkshire, which Ms Dorran believes could solve the issue.
“As soon as its ready it should be used if somebody is that determined to control the grey population. Before adding: “It’s a compromise for animal protection organisations and environmentalists, because it’s interference. But it’s better than killing and I think that’s certainly something we would ultimately agree on.
However, Shuttleworth does not think this would be enough: ”Of course in terms of reducing the population – it would be a humane way. But would it be sufficient? A sterilised squirrel can’t breed but that animal can still damage tree bark. It will reduce population but we’ll still have to be killing grey squirrels to some extent.”
As for Bournemouth’s grey squirrels, loved by thousands of tourists each year, Ms Dorran has advice to help protect them.
“If people feed more they will breed more every year, so if you love grey squirrels don’t feed them as it artificially swells their numbers.”