The British media delights in a crass argument and they don’t come much more heavy-handed than the well-rehearsed “reds versus greys” debate. In the red corner you have the noble native, fighting a valiant rearguard action — a desperate battle for survival — while in the grey corner you have the unchecked expansion of the bigger, more aggressive immigrant, overfed, oversexed and over here, stealing our nuts. The big Squirrel Question may be a headline-writer’s dream, but the facile media kickabout over the rodents’ collective future masks the stark reality of the situation and, as is the case with badgers and TB, opens the door to official procrastination and paralysis through the fear of making a politically unpopular decision.

At the start of April, the Red Squirrel Survival Trust (RSST) was launched in Cumbria by its patron HRH the Prince of Wales with the aim of supporting the many local groups around the UK working to reverse the native squirrels’ decline. Current estimates of the red squirrel population place the total figure in the UK at around 150,000, while estimates of the grey squirrel population vary between two million and four million. With that kind of ratio, the RSST paints a necessarily grim picture — without immediate action and within a decade, the red squirrel will be extinct in England. That’s a pretty simple statement. More worrying still, just days ago news broke of Scotland’s largest ever outbreak of squirrel pox — a disease that kills reds within 15 days but to which greys are immune. More than 200 red squirrels are thought to have died so far from the disease on the Duke of Buccleuch’s Queensberry estate.

There are few shooters who fail to grasp why the grey squirrel is considered a pest. One letter sent to Shooting Times recently was typical in describing the grey in these terms: This animal is the destroyer of birds, the eater of eggs and the ruination of our hardwoods. Far from being cuddly and tame, it will rip your fingers off if it takes it into its head to do so. Clearly there’s no love lost, yet while everyone professes to adore red squirrels and greys may urgently need Max Clifford’s assistance, there is a simple question to ask. If unchecked, the grey squirrel will eliminate reds from the UK, so is it possible, practical or desirable to undertake a national cull of greys?

The RSPCA argues that “eradicating entire populations of grey squirrels would be very difficult and cause suffering”. No-one said it would be easy and no respectable shooter or trapper heads out with the intention of causing suffering, but there are plenty of conservation minded shooters who believe eradication of greys from the UK is, in the words of the Prince of Wales, “absolutely crucial”, both for the protection of the red and other wildlife as well as the protection of our woodlands.

In 2006, one of DEFRA’s more successful recent ministerial appointments, Jim Knight MP, launched an action plan to control grey squirrels in England, focusing on areas where they are damaging woodland and preventing reds from becoming established. At the time, however, he noted that “it is not realistic, practical or even desirable to eradicate grey squirrels completely — but we must control them effectively now or there will be serious consequences.” That is a position DEFRA still adopts, its lukewarm enthusiasm for culling illustrated by the fact that the Forestry Commission (FC) and DEFRA have jointly collaborated on research into the potential use of immuno-contraception as a method for population control of grey squirrels. The FC and DEFRA estimate that an effective contraceptive vaccine is about 10 years away — a bit late. Undertaking research into putting squirrels on the pill no doubt sounds attractive to the RSPCA, which believes that “science-based alternative measures to culling to reduce the impact of grey squirrels on reds should be actively investigated”. It does not address, however, the immediate impact greys have on wildlife and the rural economy, nor does it acknowledge the speed with which an organised and widespread cull could be enacted with the right support and political will.

Last month the Country Land & Business Association (CLA) published a new report, Seeing the Wood for the Trees, in which the association outlined its policy vision for the UK woodland sector. It noted what many landowners, keepers and shooters know first-hand: Grey squirrels severely damage broadleaved trees, making it almost impossible for owners of forests and woodland to grow the quality hardwoods required for financial viability and to meet Government targets for climate change mitigation through material substitution. Grey squirrels should be managed to reduce significantly their numbers and range so that they are no longer a threat to our native wildlife and our ability to grow quality timber.

In the CLA’s view this subject is not just a matter of reds versus greys, but quite sensibly a question of economic necessity. The association estimates that a staggering £1billion of damage is done to our woods every year by grey squirrels, notably in the form of bark stripping on native oak and beech trees, and it has called in the Government to make it more worthwhile to cull greys in order to help promote the literal and fiscal growth of the UK’s declining timber industry.

Could a widespread cull be achieved? There is clear evidence of support for grey squirrel control (see Is a cull desirable? The public view, page 37), likewise there is clear evidence that removing greys from a given area containing reds has a beneficial impact on the native squirrel population. Whether sufficient support could be galvanised nationally to undertake a major programme of grey squirrel control is a different matter. A cull would have to be highly organised and efficient in order to have a lasting impact and, given the size of the grey squirrel population, it would involve a large number of people. Opponents of culling argue that, when you cull large numbers, remaining greys have greater food resources, leading to more efficient breeding and higher survival rates of young. Consequently culling activity would have to be sustained over many years and trappers and shooters would have to remain vigilant in order for the cull to be effective. Conclusion: a lesson from history Realistically the biggest obstacle to a massive, organised grey squirrel cull is the political will to support one. It is worth bearing in mind that in the early 1980s the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries took the decision to eradicate the coypu from East Anglia. The animals, originally introduced from South America for fur farming in the 1920s, were responsible for widespread erosion of riverbanks and damage to crops and native flora. Escapees established a feral population numbering between 100,000 and 200,000 in the 1950s.

A campaign to eradicate the large rodents was implemented in the 1960s, but it failed to succeed entirely, so in the early 1980s a political decision was taken to do the job for good. Wages for the trappers were set at three times their usual salary if the coypu was eradicated in six years. The eradication campaign began in 1981, with 48 traps set per day by each trapper. A total of 35,000 coypu were culled across an area of 12,000km² and by 1986 the last coypu was captured, one year ahead of schedule. The case of the coypu is a textbook example of an eradication programme, which proves, quite clearly, that where there is a will, there is a way.