Trudy Harrison MP for Copeland took part in a Westminster Hall debate led by Virginia Crosbie MP (Conservative, Ynys Mon) about the control of the grey squirrel population and the threat grey squirrels pose to red squirrels.
Trudy commented on need for more trees to home, shelter and protect natural ecosystems. Trudy also cited the need to plant the correct type of tree in the correct place and commended the funding options available from DEFRA and increased efficiency in the application process due to Anna Brown at the Forestry Commission. Trudy praised the work of conservation groups in Cumbria who have worked tirelessly to conserve the red squirrel population and control the grey squirrel population.
You can find out more on the respective groups that are part of the Northern Red Squirrels community below:
- West Lakes Squirrel Initiative
- Copeland Red Squirrel Group
- Ennerdale Community Red Squirrel Group
- Keswick Red Squirrel Group
Trudy’s full debate:
It really is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and to follow my fellow atomic kitten, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie). She and I usually engage in debates on the subject of nuclear, because without it there can be no net zero or the exceptionally well-paid apprenticeships and jobs that the industry brings, but today I have discovered that our constituencies have something else in common: we both have red squirrels.
Like my hon. Friend, I am concerned about how we are dealing with grey squirrels. As I have said before here in Westminster Hall, when Beatrix Potter wrote her best-selling and globally celebrated book in 1903, she based her famous character Squirrel Nutkin on a red squirrel from St Herbert’s island on Derwentwater in Keswick, which is in my constituency. However, I really worry that such a book could not be written today, because sadly, the sight of red squirrels has become so rare. It is doubtful whether an author such as Miss Potter could become so inspired by the trials and tribulations of Squirrel Nutkin, Twinkleberry and their many cousins.
There are multiple reasons for the demise of the red squirrel—perhaps our most iconic native animal—not least the impact of humans and the loss of the red squirrel’s habitat. But, to give credit where it is due, I commend the Government, and specifically the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for the Environment Act 2021 and the environmental improvement plan, which details, across 10 goals, how we will halt nature’s decline and, most importantly, create more habitat, which is the single biggest action we can take to help nature recover.
Red squirrels need more trees. We all need more trees, because trees alleviate flooding and filter pollution. Trees provide fuel for our homes and power for our communities. Trees shade the ecosystem beneath them and, in a warming world, that has never been so important. Trees are home, shelter, breeding site and larder to so much of our wildlife. Trees sequester and store carbon, and they support a timber sector that employs 32,000 people, providing us with sustainable construction materials, posts and beams, panels and boards, furniture and fittings, and card and paper. As the former Minister for trees, I know just how tree-mendous the largest of our plant species is, and I want to put on the record my appreciation for all those people who research, plant, protect, care for and harvest trees and work with timber.
During National Tree Week, I hope we can all take a moment to celebrate the diverse and varied forestry workforce and everyone who cares for and appreciates trees. Most importantly, we should all plant a tree—the right tree in the right place for the right purpose. For anyone planting many trees, there is a variety of different funding opportunities from DEFRA and, thanks to Anna Brown at the Forestry Commission, we have a much speedier process, too. Despite the brilliant England trees action plan, the vast amount of public and private policy and funding support, and the overwhelming benefits that I have set out, unless we tackle the impacts of deer and grey squirrels in particular, we will fail to meet our 16.5% tree canopy cover target by 2050. That means we will fail to provide the habitat that nature needs to recover.
Grey squirrel damage accounts for the loss of thousands of trees all over the country and millions of pounds of damage, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn set out. More tragically, grey squirrels carry the incredibly infectious squirrel pox disease but remain unaffected. Yet, it is fatal for red squirrels. Put simply, where there are live greys, there will be dead reds. Unlike red squirrels, grey squirrels are not native. They are invasive and will outcompete the native red in size, breeding rate and general hardiness for habitat and food.
In Cumbria, and no doubt wherever red squirrels remain across the UK, the existence of red squirrels is testament to the volunteer efforts of conservation groups, which work tirelessly to control grey squirrel populations. The volunteers undergo training and follow strict risk assessment procedures. They secure the appropriate insurance and land access agreements. They will be up at the crack of dawn using their own vehicles and equipment. I would like to recognise the passion and determination of these volunteers across the UK and encourage more appreciation for their dedication to conservation. I am fortunate to have many such volunteers and organisations in and around Copeland, including the West Lakes Squirrel Initiative, Copeland Red Squirrel Group, Ennerdale Community Red Squirrel Group and Keswick Red Squirrel Group. They are all part of the Northern Red Squirrels community, and there are many other groups across Cumbria.
I am pleased that DEFRA has committed to a robust and effective grey squirrel action plan, which will seek to control numbers, but I would like some assurance from the Minister, who is a most competent and capable Minister and is most familiar with the countryside, about when we will have a published plan. Does she agree that, in red squirrel strongholds and, I would argue, all Forestry Commission sites, there must be a zero-tolerance approach if we are to provide the red squirrel with a chance of survival and prevent the vast and visible damage to woodlands and the flora and fauna that are so dependent on increased tree coverage?
I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and look forward to hearing an update from the Minister on the progress being made on the oral contraceptive and the world-leading research in the development of gene editing. Could she also touch on any plans to reintroduce red squirrels in areas where we feel their survival could be more favourable in future?
Rebecca Pow MP, Minister for Nature’s full response:
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. First, I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) for securing the debate and for giving all five Members in the room who are passionate about red squirrels the chance to talk about the subject and everything the Government are doing to ensure that the precious red squirrels survive and thrive. I must thank my hon. Friend for the great deal of work she does in her constituency to champion those creatures. I also thank the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), who has done an awful lot of the bones of the work on the framework for the grey squirrel action plan. I must note how much she has done and how passionate she is. Her work has genuinely helped along the whole programme a great deal.
I do not know whether you have seen red squirrels, Mr Vickers, but I have seen them up close and personal at a place called Snaizeholme in the Yorkshire dales. Once seen, they are never forgotten. I am a massive Beatrix Potter fan as well, so Squirrel Nutkin had a big impact on my childhood. Once one has engaged with red squirrels, one becomes passionate about saving them, as I think is the case with the Members in this room.
This debate is about grey squirrels in Great Britain and their huge impact on the red squirrel. We must remember that grey squirrels are often people’s only interaction with nature and wildlife, particularly in urban areas, so we need to tread with care over the subject of controlling them. It is clear that they are an invasive, non-native species to our islands, introduced into this country only in the late 19th century and becoming quickly established across Great Britain. We are only too aware now of the creature’s negative impacts on wildlife and habitats.
Expanding grey squirrel populations represents a huge threat to the reds. We have an estimated 2.7 million grey squirrels in Great Britain and they are outcompeting the poor little red squirrels for food. They transmit the awful squirrel pox, which has been touched on, which is fatal to our native species. As a result, grey squirrels have displaced red squirrels throughout much of Great Britain, leading to fragmentation of their populations. We believe there are currently fewer than 39,000 red squirrels in England and 287,000 in Great Britain.
The issue is about more than that, however. Grey squirrels are not only having an impact on the populations of red squirrels, as has been clearly outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland; they are also having a huge impact on trees, the timber industry and the deciduous, ornamental forests. That is because they strip the bark, and managing woodlands and trying to deal with that is a real challenge.
A recent report by the Royal Forestry Society suggested that the cost of the damage is about £37 million a year in lost timber value in England and Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland is right in saying that the timber industry is an important industry that we want to expand. Trees are also important for carbon capture and climate mitigation, but there is also the cost of replacing the trees that squirrels have killed. The World Bank has forecast that the global demand for timber will quadruple by 2050 and that includes in the UK. That is why it is even more important that we can, first, produce as much as we can at home, and secondly, that the crop we plant is sustainable. We have made commitments to that in the environmental improvement plan.
Damage from grey squirrels can also act as a disincentive to planting trees because of the costs of coping with the animals, and that is currently blocking the growth of the domestic timber supply chain. That really needs to be tackled. If we want to have a much more sustainable domestic timber trade, we need to reduce pressure from this invasive, non-native species.
Grey squirrels have an impact on our coniferous forests, which largely supply our timber, but they also have an impact on deciduous forests as well. Once a tree—beech, for example—is destroyed, fungal diseases can take hold, which is another threat to the trees. Clearly, we have to do something about that.
In the light of the significant environmental damage inflicted by grey squirrels, they have been listed as a species of special concern under the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019—there is similar legislation in Scotland—which is an important tool in managing the impact of that invasive species. A refreshed GB invasive non-native species strategy was published this year, which sets out the challenges and what we need to do. It supports other national strategies and provides an integrated approach across Great Britain. Obviously, we need to know what is happening in Northern Ireland as well, and I am pleased to say that it is very much part of the Squirrel Accord.
To get to the nuts and bolts of today’s debate, we have a grey squirrel action plan, championed by DEFRA, which sets out our actions to manage the squirrels in England. I can assure Members that that will be published shortly. It is a refreshed five-year plan that will concentrate on advice and incentives for land managers, more collaboration and partnerships, and funding and research as appropriate.
I want to thank the volunteers whose role is critical, as has been highlighted by many in this room today. We will also encourage our land managers to take action. If they are part of the countryside stewardship under the woodland element, they can access the squirrel management supplement. There is funding to help, which many landowners have taken advantage of, and I encourage others to do so.
I have already mentioned the Squirrel Accord, which is chaired by Lord Kinnoull. I recognise his valuable work. Northern Ireland is involved in that, too. We are co-ordinating across all the nations and exploring different methods of management.
Both of my hon. Friends mentioned immunocontraception and the idea of encouraging squirrels to take contraceptives through bait that is taken orally. It is put in the food, and research work is well under way. There is still a way to go, but that valuable work is going on. We have to carry on doing that work and we are committed to that.
My hon. Friends also mentioned pine martens, a natural predator of the grey squirrel. They have been released in the Forest of Dean, where they are being monitored for a programme, quite near where I am in Somerset. That is a useful and interesting study and there will be opportunities there as the population of pine martens grow. Work is still under way on gene drive technology, which can alter genes and eventually help us control the grey squirrel.
Work has been done on developing a vaccine against the horrible squirrel pox, but it is not looking overly promising, to be honest. Work has been stalled for some years, so we prefer to concentrate research efforts on the contraception, which looks more promising in the long term. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn asked about that, so I hope she is happy with that response.
We have 22 large-scale landscape recovery schemes. The second round is opening and there are opportunities there, as well as through the nature recovery projects, to create the right kinds of habitats for our wonderful red squirrels.
I hope I have demonstrated that there is a lot going on across Government. A lot of it has been escalated since my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland was involved in DEFRA. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn for the extremely valuable work that she has been doing. The action plan will be published very soon. We are committed to controlling those pernicious grey squirrels.