Sunday, May 18, 2014

Prince Charles Is a Bloodthirsty Squirrel Killer

Prince Charles is showing his true colors as an environmental hypocrite. Recently the Prince held a meeting with government forestry officials and conservationists at Dumfries House, one of his many luxurious homes. At this meeting the attendees reached a "squirrel accord" which outlines steps to preserve and restore Eurasian red squirrel numbers in the UK. The centerpiece of this accord is, of course, the grisly "culling" (a more polite term for killing) of massive numbers of grey (gray in the US) squirrels. The motivation for the accord is a naive nostalgia for the days when the Eurasian red squirrel was the dominant squirrel species in the British Isles, a day which the Prince refuses to acknowlege is long past.

Grey Squirrel

Grey squirrels have become a popular environmental scapegoat in Great Britain over the past few decades. Introduced to England in 1876 by a wealthy banker who thought that they would liven up the grounds of his estate, the species has spread throughout the island and now outnumbers the red squirrel by a considerable margin. Greys have been blamed for the decline in numbers of the red squirrel, but the truth is much more complex than "conservationists" like Prince Charles would have us believe. The most often-cited cause of the red squirrels' decline is a virus called "squirrel pox" which is deadly to reds but harmless greys, who are blamed for spreading the disease.

But the red squirrel advocates conveniently overlook other causes of the decline, such as habitat loss and urban, suburban, and agricultural development, which have wiped out conifer and mixed forests that the red squirrel depends on. The unfortunate fact is that grey squirrels are much more suited to living in small patches of hardwood forest, yards, and parklands in close proximity to humans than are their red cousins. It is obviously much easier for public figures like Prince Charles to point to a supposed villain, the grey squirrel, than to address the real problems that would require much more time, effort, and (most importantly) money to fix.

Red Squirrel

So what will come of Prince Charles' "squirrel accord?" The same that has been happening now for years. Traps will be set. Terrified grey squirrels will be "humanely" killed by shooting, or by bludgeoning or drowning in burlap sacks. Small localized and temporary increases in red squirrel numbers will be hailed as victories. And in the long run, nothing will change at all. The truth that the Prince and his allies refuse to acknowledge is that the window of opportunity to eradicate the grey squirrel from Britain passed a century ago. Hopefully the red squirrel will adapt and manage to maintain its numbers in some areas, especially the north of England and Scotland where conifer forests remain. But no amount of nostalgia will make the red squirrel the dominant species in the UK as it once was. Those who like Prince Charles want to save this species in Britain need to focus their efforts on habitat restoration and developing a vaccine for squirrel pox virus. They need to ask themselves how long the grey squirrel needs to be established in England before it stops being an "invasive" species and is accepted as part of the environment.