Wildlife Centres No Longer Accepting Grey Squirrels as EU Tells Them ‘Keep Them Or Kill Them’

Under a new EU law which came into effect in December 2019, it is now illegal for anyone in the UK to release grey squirrels into the wild. The grey squirrel is one of the UK’s most well-known examples of an evasive species, and you would be hard-pressed to visit any location in the country and not find evidence of these creatures. However, this new law means that many wildlife rescue centres, who would have once rescued, rehabilitated and released grey squirrels back into their now natural environments have no choice but to kill them.

This has led to many rescue centres across the country urging well-meaning members of the public not to bring them injured grey squirrels or orphaned babies as they will have no choice but to kill them instead of treating them.
EU Regulation number 1143/2014 ‘of the European Parliament and Council of the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of invasive alien species’ has produced a list of animals and plants this new law covers which can be found here.

Back in December 2018 wildlife centres were warned that their ‘rehabilitate and release’ licenses would be revoked in April 2019. The following outcry, including a petition which garnered over 60,000 signatures opposed to this decision, led the government to extend the licenses until October 2019. This was then extended further still until December 2019. Now, however, the law is in full effect. Whilst centres can apply for licenses which will allow them to keep the animals rather than release or destroy them, there are very strict rules around this process which would make it extremely difficult for anyone who wanted to apply.

There is no denying the impact that invasive species have on the environment; a study published in 2013, which was earlier present at the 8th European Vertebrate Pest Management Conference in 2011, notes that the damage caused to trees by the squirrels habit of stripping bark runs into the millions of pounds. However, it is worth noting that this figure includes money which is spent on trying to deter this damage, and it is unclear how successful these measures are. It has been reported that in general invasive, non-native species cost the economy £1.7 billion per year.

A DEFRA spokesperson was reported as saying that “This action is to protect our native red squirrels which, with only an estimated 15,000 left in England, are in real danger.” But it is thought that the impact that grey squirrels save on red squirrel populations has been grossly exaggerated. Like the grey squirrel, red squirrels were also deemed as pests and hunted, which resulted in their extinction in the 18th century. They were later reintroduced from Scandinavia. Urbanisation and agricultural expansion has since been responsible for the destruction of around 50% of the forests that were inhabited by red squirrels which has had an adverse effect on their numbers. There is also evidence to show that the pox virus, which was thought to be transmitted from grey squirrels to red squirrels and is another often cited example of why grey squirrels are responsible for the decline in red squirrels, may actually come from dirty feeders. Studies have suggested that interactions between red and grey squirrels in regards to the pox virus transmission rank near the bottom of the list.

When it comes to the ‘bigger picture’, many have questioned the reasoning behind this list and what is considered invasive and in need of control. Jason Gilchrist, an Ecologist from Edinburgh Napier University, states that there are 11 million pet cats in the UK, which kill about 27 million wild birds each year and around 92 million wild prey in total. The game bird industry releases millions of non-native birds – 35 million pheasants and six-and-a-half million red-legged partridges – into the British countryside each year, to be shot for sport. So why aren’t these issues being addressed?

Culling of grey squirrels using ‘human’ methods have not proven successful in the past. In a Guardian article from 2015, scientists state that ‘there has been no successful method developed in the long-term control (nor indeed the eradication) of grey squirrel populations … a recovery in numbers was found to take place within 10 weeks of intensive culling programs.’ It notes that in Ireland, grey squirrels were being pushed back from lands and making room for red squirrel populations to thrive again, thanks to Pine Martens. Pine Martens are now legally protected in Ireland which has led to an increase in their numbers. Whilst the red squirrel is small and light enough to be able to perch on branches out of the pine martens reach, grey squirrels are not. As such, as the pine marten population grows and preys on the grey squirrel population, this in turn has allowed the red squirrel population to thrive. In fact, a programme to boost the pine marten population in the UK is already underway.

Many wildlife centres and those involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of grey squirrels are appalled by these new measures. The only saving grace is that once we leave the EU, we will not have to adhere to this particular law (a very small, silver lining perhaps in regards to Brexit in general), which will give us a chance to look at more natural and humane ways of controlling the gre squirrel population.

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Jessica Howard

Jessica Howard

31 years old, currently living and working in London, UK.

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