It’s the red coats against the grey coats but in England’s new battle of the squirrels the red ones have an unfair advantage: humans are fighting for them.
Prince Charles is one of them and has stood behind the “squirrel accord”, an agreement reached at Dumfries House, his stately home in Scotland, between the government and forestry officials to take measures to actively diminish the grey squirrel population in England.
“Red squirrels are a much-loved, but threatened, part of British wildlife,” said Owen Paterson, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs about the meeting. “I fully support this accord and endorse the need to work together to revive our iconic red squirrel population, and encourage the planting of new broadleaved woodlands.”
Red squirrels are native to the United Kingdom but since grey squirrels were first introduced to the land by a Victorian banker who had just returned from America, the greys have overpowered them. Today there are over 5 million grey squirrels in the United Kingdom and only 120,000 to 140,000 reds. They’re bigger and stronger and just happen to carry a poxvirus that is deadly to reds.
Prince Charles who is a member of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, an organization that aims to keep the red critters alive and abundant, is backing the efforts to “drive out the greys”. The squirrels would be trapped and “humanely” disposed of, although there’s no details on how that disposal would be done.
Environmentalists have shown disapproval towards the idea saying it’s not a longterm solution.
“Our chance to fully eradicate grey squirrels passed at some stage in the 1920s or 30s,” said BBC presenter and naturalist Chris Packham. “Regarding their control, this should be strictly focused on the specific areas where they actively transmit the pox virus to the reds for the simple reason of costs alone. Killing greys where they do not threaten crops or infect reds is a complete waste of money, time and energy – it’s pointless vandalism.”
Packham suggested that developing a vaccine for the reds to be immune from the poxvirus would be a smarter solution, with which a spokesman for the charity Animal Aid agrees.
“Claims that they are trying to ‘save’ the red squirrel is disingenuous as reds are not endangered but are actually plentiful across their range. There are ways to help protect red squirrels. Establishing them on islands, changing forest planting and supplementing their feed could all help the much-loved animal, without harming the greys.”