"Marketing the red as a 'national treasure' and the grey as a 'pest' merely transfers the label from one innocent species to another when all along the real problem, as usual, has been human interference in nature...."
A little while ago I added my name to a petition. It calls on the British government to amend a new law that will criminalise wildlife rescuers who rehabilitate grey squirrels.
From March, under new regulations, it will be illegal to release rescued greys back into the wild - they will have to be kept in controlled captivity under strict licencing - or exterminated. The licencing criteria are not clear at this point. What is clear is that the government has labelled the grey squirrel as a pest that needs to be 'managed'.
Whatever your opinion on grey squirrels, surely intervening to help any animal in distress amounts to a simple matter of compassion. To save a life is something that most of us find an instinctively kind and correct thing to do.
So it was with dismay that I read a statement, issued yesterday by the government's environmental department DEFRA, in response to the 30,000+ people who have already signed the petition.
Cold-hearted and frosty statement
The words are so cold-hearted that they might have been written by a machine. Such a lack of compassion from the people tasked with protecting nature fills me with dismay.
I quote from their frosty response here.
"....the grey squirrel, will be managed through “eradication, population control or containment” measures."
I've come to view that oft used term 'managed' as really quite sinister. They 'manage' badgers, rabbits, geese, ravens and any number of other species too. And we see their numbers declining. One might just as well replace 'manage' entirely with 'eradicate'. One justification given for removing grey squirrels is that they are invasive and are responsible for the decline in our native reds. That doesn't really hold water. The truth is that the demise of the red squirrel is almost entirely due to human persecution and decimation of its habitat.
102,900 RED squirrels massacred by hunters
During the early part of the 20th century, gamekeepers and others viewed red squirrels as pests and a bounty was offered on their tails. In Scotland alone, between 1903 and 1946, 102,900 red squirrels were slaughtered.
Now that memories of this mass killing of red squirrels have disappeared into the murky past, our newly found concern for the survival of the species has come too late - and along with a scapegoat, the grey squirrel. Marketing the red as a 'national treasure' and the grey as a 'pest' merely transfers the label from one innocent species to another when all along the real problem, as usual, has been human interference in nature.
The new legislation will potentially give those who get their thrills from killing wild animals the green light to go and massacre squirrels again, this time greys instead of reds - with an official blessing from the government.
How can that be right?
Ancient woodlands destroyed - not by grey squirrels but by HS2
DEFRA's statement earnestly informs us that the government is deeply concerned over the future of our ancient woodlands. "Grey squirrels also cause damage to our broad-leaved and coniferous woodlands, with costs estimated at between £6 and £10 million per annum in Great Britain."
No mention though of the 50 or more ancient woodlands that the government are willfully and recklessly destroying, completely and permanently, by building the new high speed railway HS2 right through them - and at a cost of 100 billion pounds.
A bit of perspective - and honesty - is needed here I think; it actually seems that the 'problem' of squirrels destroying our woodlands is really quite insignificant compared to the damage caused to our woodlands by the government decision makers themselves.
Here's another quote from the DEFRA statement. "Invasive species, including the grey squirrel, challenge the survival of our rarest species and damage some of our most sensitive ecosystems". We already know the red squirrel's demise is primarily down to people and not grey squirrels and that the government itself is more of a threat to our woodlands than grey squirrels could ever be; but what of the heartfelt concern over the 'survival of our rarest species'? Well I might take that more seriously had it not emanated from the same government departments behind the issuing of licences to shoot red and amber listed birds, including wrens, skylarks and robins.
It all feels very contradictory doesn't it?
Reluctance to engage with concerned public
I've been campaigning to stop that government sanctioned killing of our wild birds, the petition is now at 91,000+ signatures, but regrettably I've found it difficult to engage with Natural England, the government department responsible for issuing the licences. Enquiries were initially met with silence and it took a freedom of information request to elicit a response.
I broke the news on my blog and it was quickly picked up by the national press.
Public outrage followed. And much of this was fuelled by the apparent indifference of DEFRA and Natural England who only issued a lacklustre statement after the news began to to go viral.
Similar indignation is now growing at the new legislation over grey squirrels.
DEFRA and Natural England really do need to engage more with the public of this country.
Debate is necessary and healthy.
A regrettable lack of human kindness.
With regard to our grey squirrels, well whatever DEFRA's reason for wanting to 'eradicate' this now naturalised animal, a delightful creature that the people of this country have largely taken into their hearts, it is surely nothing to do with 'protecting our countryside', 'preserving our woodlands' or 'saving our red squirrels'.
It is more to do with an agency that has been given the job of protecting our countryside but seems to have a skewed appreciation of nature and a regrettable lack of human kindness.
Yet they feel they can decide, on behalf of us all - and without our consent - which species to 'manage and eradicate' and which to protect.
At best their efforts appear erratic and insensitive. And at worst they show a total disregard for the concerns of the compassionate British public.
You can sign the petition to save Grey Squirrels HERE
The petition to stop the issuing of licences to kill rare birds is HERE
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