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The grey squirrel policy and action statement

Frequently asked questions

1. Policy development and background
2. Policy details and priorities
3. Methods of control
4. Reaction to policy

1. Policy development and background

Q1. What is the aim of this policy?

A1. To set out a framework for controlling grey squirrels so that populations are held at a level which does not threaten our native woodlands and priority species.

Q2. The Forestry Commission (FC) has never had a policy on grey squirrels so why does it need one now?

A2. The Sustaining England’s Woodlands (SEW) Review (Forestry Commission 2002) committed the FC to “develop with partners a clear, modern policy towards grey squirrels in England backed up by appropriate management strategies”.  The Review report said that the FC would work with the England Squirrel Forum (which includes a range of organisations concerned with woodland management, grey squirrel control and red squirrel conservation), and seek its advice in developing policy and practice in this area.

The grey squirrel represents a serious and growing threat to our native woodlands and priority species.  These threats arise principally through:

  • the stripping of bark leading to the deterioration  of trees, reduced income for woodland owners and a reduction in woodland management and associated public benefits;
  • competition with the native red squirrel and spreading the squirrelpox  virus;
  • predation of birds nests and competition with endangered species such as the dormouse.

Q3. What consultation has taken place in developing this policy?

A3. Twenty-eight people from the England Squirrel Forum, representing 22 interest groups or organisations, together with the Woodland Grants Scheme (WGS) Applicants’ Focus Group and the FC England National Committee, Forest Enterprise (FE), Forest Research (FR) and the Scottish and Welsh Squirrel Fora, were consulted on a draft in November 2004.

Q4. Were any animal welfare organisations involved in the consultation? 

A4. The RSPCA and wildlife trusts are represented on the England Squirrel Forum and were consulted in the preparation of the policy.

Q5. Why is the Forestry Commission, not Defra, involved in the delivery of this policy?

A5. This statement is primarily about management actions in woodlands.  The Forestry Commission (FC) in England is the lead expert delivery body on woodland matters.  The FC and Defra jointly own the Policy and Action Statement, and Defra has been fully involved in the drafting.

Q6.  Is it only the UK that has this issue with grey squirrels?  Why is it that their native USA does not have the same issues?

A6.  In their native habitat grey squirrels have a vast number of competitors for food (other squirrels and small mammals, deer and bears).  There is also a large number of natural predators. For these reasons the number of squirrels reaching maturity and breeding age is lower.  Reports of damage from the USA appear to be from habitats where there are fewer competitors and predators, such as town parks.

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2. Policy detail and priorities

Q7.  What is new about this policy?

A7. The FC has maintained programmes for the control of grey squirrels for over forty years involving monitoring, research, development of practical control methods, advice, training, grant support and direct action on the public forest estate.

This announcement builds on that work and:

  • articulates a comprehensive policy and action programme;
  • recognises the wider impacts of grey squirrels on Priority Species and woodland habitats;
  • develops a framework and rationale for targeting action where it will be most effective;
  • promotes new areas of research.

Q8. Will this address the problem?

A8. The grey squirrel poses a complex and profound challenge.  The success of any control programme will be crucially dependent upon the support and co-operation of individual woodland owners.  Nevertheless, this policy provides the best chance of success by targeting resources at those areas where the grey squirrel poses the greatest threats.

Q9. Why does this policy just affect England?

A9. The SEW Review required policy and action to be developed for England.  Following devolution, countries within the UK develop forestry policy according to the priorities and needs of the particular countries.  Nevertheless, in recognition of the GB-wide challenges posed by grey squirrels, the Scottish and Welsh Squirrel Fora have been fully involved in the development of this policy.  Moreover the policy is underpinned by research undertaken by Forest Research which has a GB remit.

Q10.  Is the priority of this policy to protect timber, woodlands, or red squirrels?

A10. The policy aims to control grey squirrels at a level necessary to sustainably manage our woodland and protect priority species.  Specific issues and threats from grey squirrels vary around the country in terms of their importance and will be responded to within the framework set by this policy.

Q11. What is the FC doing to safeguard the remaining populations of red squirrels in England that are threatened by grey squirrel expansion?

A11. The FC is Joint Lead Partner (with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)) responsible for delivery of the Red Squirrel Species Action Plan (SAP).  The ESF acts as the Red Squirrel SAP Steering Group in England.  FC England has led the wider partnership on red squirrels in determining and agreeing red squirrel priority areas that offer a practical prospect of retaining viable red squirrel populations in England in the long-term. 

The Isle of Wight and Poole Harbour Islands populations are secure provided grey squirrel incursions are dealt with immediately they occur.  We have supported Action Plans here, including contingency plans for dealing rapidly with grey incursions. 

In northern England we have initiated and funded, with support from English Nature, the identification of 16 Priority Red Squirrel Reserve forests, and developed management principles and agreement for these and the surrounding buffer countryside with the support of a wide range of local and
regional partners. 

The FC is also funding a modelling contract to identify the most likely incursion routes by grey squirrels into Priority Sites, which will allow monitoring and action to be targeted.  Currently this Red Alert Northern England Partnership is seeking funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to match other funding, secured to enable the plan to be implemented.  In addition, under the new English Woodland Grant Scheme (EWGS) the FC has established a special Red Squirrel Woodland Improvement Grant project targeted at these priority areas.

Q12. Isn’t the greatest threat to red squirrels not from the grey squirrels themselves
but from the virus they carry which is fatal to red squirrels?

A12. The virus is undoubtedly a factor in red squirrel decline, but it is not the only one.  The major factor in decline seems to be invasion by grey squirrels, whether or not they are spreading squirrelpox.  Consequently our absolute priority is to research feasible methods of grey squirrel control.  Nevertheless we do recognise the value of researching the biology and transmission of squirrelpox.  We have recently led a scientific conference on the topic and are working with other members of the UK Red Squirrel Group to develop realistic research proposals.

Q13. How much research does FC carry out into grey squirrel control, and how does this compare with future spend for the next five years under this policy?

A13. In 2005-6, research spend by the FC on grey squirrels (damage impact on tree growth, breeding assessment, index trapping, provision of advice, technology transfer, etc.) is £115k.  The FC estimates that a total of £135k per year will be spent for each of the next five years.  This includes £115k per year on research on grey squirrel control to protect tree crops and red squirrels, and £20k per year on reproduction control work.  FC Research is also benefiting from investment and research in other countries.

Q14.   The policy document talks of “critical threat” determining the level of intervention and control of grey squirrel damage. How will “critical threat” be defined? And who will have the final say?

A14. The basis for determining “critical threat” is set out in the decision support guidance provided in the Policy and Action document.  Forestry Commission Conservators will be responsible for determining if an area is subject to a “critical threat” when considering eligibility for grant aid.

Q15. Will this targetting of efforts to critical areas affect current efforts in areas not deemed “critical”?

A15. Targeted support based on a critical threat to public benefits will mean a greater level of funding availability and support in areas where it is really needed and where we believe that there is a strong likelihood of effective implementation.  The great majority of woods in England already hold grey squirrel populations at their carrying capacity, including woods where low levels of control have had no effect on populations.  The framework allows for a flexible approach to control efforts, encompassing the wide range of landowners and managers, woodland use and local ecological issues that affect woodland management strategies. The systems of grants, support and advice available will allow appropriate response to the identified threat.

Q16.  With the variation in squirrel numbers, how will the FC be able to accurately predict the ever-changing threat?

A16. The index trapping method, which aims to predict years of high squirrel damage in order to better target control activities, is currently being developed.  The method explores the relationship between grey squirrel populations, winter food availability, spring breeding success and damage the following summer.  If and when the index trapping predictive method becomes available, grant availability may be adjusted year to year according to priorities.

Q17. Does this policy only affect woodlands? What about the urban growth of squirrels?

A17. The FC’s (and Defra’s) remit is to protect and enhance our woodlands as a natural resource, including urban woodland.  We recognise that grey squirrels thrive in wooded gardens and parks in towns and cities.  Despite a growing awareness by the public of the problems they may cause, they are engaging creatures and viewing them contributes to public enjoyment of the outdoors.  This attraction is sometimes reflected in TV programmes and advertising.  Public bodies, including the FC, have no powers to prevent the public from feeding grey squirrels, especially in private gardens, but we hope that this policy and action will inform the public about the need for control of grey squirrels.

Q18. Is the success of grey squirrels in urban areas undermining woodland control schemes?

A18. No.  Most woodlands, especially those critical for red squirrels, are well away from our major towns.  Grey squirrel population levels in a local area are determined by local habitat conditions and control strategies.

Q19.  Is the FC encouraging people to act differently towards grey squirrels, i.e. not to put food out for them, etc?

A19. FC will endeavour to widen the public’s understanding of the grey squirrel.  The key messages are:

  • although grey squirrels are introductions, they are now an established component of our English wildlife and are here to stay;
  • as exotics, their populations are not regulated by natural predators and do present threats to our native woodlands and priority species.  These threats can only be contained by active management and humane control operations.

3. Methods of control

Q20. The FC talk of preferred and tested methods of control – What does this mean in reality?

A20. As part of the commitments laid out in this policy, the Forestry Commission will be disseminating advice and best practice on the humane and effective control of grey squirrel damage.  Current control to prevent bark stripping damage is largely carried out with the targeted use of Warfarin bait in areas where there are no red squirrels or pine martens or through trapping.  Any control methods require consistent approaches across local areas and between local landowners and woodland managers to make them work most effectively.  The FC will be working with woodland managers to facilitate consistent approaches to ensure control efforts are correctly targeted. 

A copy of the current Advisory Note on grey squirrel control is available as part of the media pack.  This is current until next year, when further updated guidance will be issued.  This will take into account new European Commission guidelines on the use of Warfarin as a Plant Protection Product, which after April 2007 can only be used in pre-prepared products or baits. 

Q21.   Some have argued that the only effective solution is wider culling?  Why won’t the FC advocate this?

A21. Eradication is not a feasible or desirable option given current methods. Worldwide, the record on eradicating small successful introduced mammals is very poor with research showing that low-level widespread culling has no impact on either grey squirrel numbers or upon damage to trees and priority species.  As such it is ineffective and a waste of resources.

Even with new methods and unlimited resources, a successful eradication policy would require the total support of the public. Evidence suggests that a substantial proportion of the public would not support a grey squirrel eradication policy. This policy aims to create a balanced approach to wildlife conservation: controlling grey squirrel populations at a level which does not threaten our native woodlands and priority species.

Q22. Is the FC hoping to use developing immuno-contraception techniques as a means of controlling grey squirrels? And is it a realistic option?

A22. The FC and Defra are collaborating on research into the use of immuno-contraception as a method for grey squirrel control, based upon fertility control methods that have recently been developed in the United States. Single dose fertility control vaccines, which remain effective for a number of years, have recently been developed and used successfully in a number of other species in the USA.  We need to make sure that the drugs used are fully tested and trialled before they are used on wild animals in the UK, to ensure that they are effective on the target species and can be administered safely without adverse affects to other wildlife.  One problem is that the vaccine is not species-specific and so initial work is concentrating on identification of the best carrier bait and an effective way to restrict access to the bait by other animals.  It is hoped that sufficient progress will be made for enclosure trials between 2006-2008.

The FC are certainly not looking at an immediate answer here, and even if research proves successful, licensing for widespread use would not be straightforward.  However, if the research goes to plan, a working method could be available within ten years.  Investment in this research won’t affect support for targeted grey control in critically threatened woods.

Q23. How will the FC support landowners and woodland managers seeking to control grey squirrel damage in their woodlands?

A23. In response to this policy announcement, the FC will develop new arrangements to target support for the control of grey squirrel damage.  Landowners who are prepared to take steps to sustainably manage their woodlands and contribute to other policy targets, such as biodiversity and access, will be encouraged by a range of grants and support.  Targeting actions to areas of critical threat has the potential to encourage and reassure owners in their efforts to manage woodlands.

The guiding principle will be to support owners who demonstrate a commitment to the sustainable management of their woodlands that are subject to a “critical threat” from grey squirrels.  Grant support will be dependant on eligibility criteria for the EWGS being met.  We will also encourage and support partnerships on co-operative control where sustainability and public benefits are threatened by grey squirrel damage at a landscape scale.
A pilot Woodland Improvement Grant project has already been established for the 16 Priority Red Squirrel Reserve forests in northern England.

Q24. What other, more natural means of control could be open to woodland owners?

A24. Research is focussed on improving the targeting and cost efficiency of control – including the potential use of vaccines to limit reproduction.  Habitat manipulation to reduce damage requires further investigation.  The effect of continuous cover forest management systems on squirrel population dynamics and damage is not yet fully understood.

4. Reaction to policy

Q25. What do the FC and Defra anticipate that the public reaction will be to this policy?

A25. We expect a range of reactions.  We hope and expect that our approach will be recognised as realistic and based upon a sound appreciation of the challenges posed by such a successful animal, which has both attractive and damaging sides and which needs an effective management strategy to keep it in balance with the wider environment.

Q26. Defra and the FC assert that the public have a generally favourable attitude towards grey squirrels.  Where is the evidence to support this?

A26. We do not quite make this assertion.  We do believe that there is evidence that a significant proportion of the public, especially children and especially in towns, find them attractive and welcome them as one of the most accessible wild animals. This is recognised by several companies in their advertising and has been reinforced by television presenters and popular wildlife programmes.  We also appreciate that there is considerable public support for grey squirrel control in the red squirrel priority areas.

Media questions on the technical aspects of the policy should be referred to:
Forestry Commission England Press Office on 01223 346 034.

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