Sunday, December 14, 2014

British Landowner's Group Pushes For Cruel Poisoning of Grey Squirrels

The British war against grey squirrels is once again in the news. Earlier this year, Prince Charles engineered a "squirrel accord" that called for increased slaughter of greys squirrels in the English countryside, and later ordered a massacre of greys on his own personal estates. Now a prominent British landowner's organization is pressing for a reversal of the ban on a blood thinning drug for use as poison against the squirrels.

The County Land and Business Association (CLA) is asking the British government to license Warfarin for use as part of the "national action plan" against grey squirrels. Warfarin, a popular anticoagulant medication for humans, also has a history of use in "pest control," usually against rats and other rodents. Although often touted as a "humane" pesticide, in reality Warfarin kills its victims painfully, usually over a period of several days, of internal hemorrhage, an agonizing death that is anything but humane.

One of the proposed victims

In asking for permission to use this cruel drug, the CLA cites several of the arguments that have been used for years to justify the mass slaughter of grey squirrels in the UK, most prominently: that grey squirrels damage woodlands by stripping trees of their bark; and that grey squirrels are an invasive species that has caused a decline in the native red squirrel population, primarily by infecting red squirrels with the squirrel pox virus. Both of these arguments are flawed.

On the first argument, grey squirrels do sometimes strip bark off trees, particularly beech and sycamore, to access the sap beneath and to use the bark itself for nest lining. However, grey squirrel detractors tend to exaggerate the extent of the damage that this stripping does. The trees are rarely killed, and in fact the stripping can be beneficial to a forest ecosystem by encouraging the growth of fungi and invertebrates that provide food for birds and other animals.

Bark stripping by grey squirrels is seen as a problem mainly by timber harvesters who require "perfect" trees for the sawmill. However, the problem could be mitigated with improved land management practices. A greater mixture of broadleaf and conifer trees would reduce the damage from bark stripping and also provide a better environment for red squirrels who prefer conifer forests.

Regarding the argument that grey squirrels are responsible for the red squirrels' decline, this is a widespread but deeply flawed assumption. The truth is, Eurasian red squirrel numbers have declining in the UK for centuries, since well before the introduction of grey squirrels from North America in 1876. The primary reasons for the decline are habitat loss and deforestation, as well as disease. There is strong evidence that red squirrels were dying of squirrel pox in the early twentieth century, in areas where grey squirrels were not yet present. And up until the 1930s, red squirrels were widely regarded as pests and were slaughtered by the thousands, just as grey squirrels are today.

Also a victim

Proponents of grey squirrel "culls" (read "kills") claim to be conservationists acting in the interest of restoring the red squirrel. However, the true motive is twofold: the financial interests of the timber industry as represented by the CLA and other landowners; and a misguided nostalgia that sees the red squirrel as a symbol of past England that is fading from memory.

The fact is, most of the red squirrels in the UK today are descendants of squirrels introduced from the European mainland after previous local extinctions, so the current red squirrel population in England is no more native than the grey squirrel population. The idea that it is okay to slaughter one species in order to save another, or even worse, to maximize profits, is one that we need to lay to rest.