New contraceptive pill initiative to curb scourge of grey squirrel invaders
One of our most iconic and much-loved species is in danger of dying out within the next 10 years.
Numbers of red squirrels have fallen dramatically since larger greys from America were introduced in the 1870s.
Their arrival has had a “disastrous impact” on the UK’s native population of red squirrels, according to the Woodland Trust, which had thrived in the country for over 10,000 years.
There are now thought to be between 120,000 to 160,000 with three-quarters found in Scotland down from 3.5 million when greys first arrived.
Worryingly the population in England, made famous by Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, is now thought to be as low as 15,000.
Greys, which are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of “100 worst invasive non-native species”, compete with red squirrels for food, but they also carry a virus known as squirrelpox. While the greys are immune, they transmit it to reds, and it’s fatal.
Now scientists are hoping a radical new programme
to give invasive grey squirrels oral contraceptives will reduce their numbers, in an effort to boost tree cover and allow the return of native reds. The Government has said the species costs the economy £1.8billion a year.
The reduction plan involves lacing hazelnut spread with contraceptives, and placing the food in feeding pots only the squirrels can access.
Environment minister Zac Goldsmith has said the rising number of grey squirrels, which is approaching three million, also threatens efforts to tackle the climate crisis as they damage trees through bark stripping.
A coalition of forestry and conservation organisations named the UK Squirrel Accord (UKSA) is leading the proposals.
It said a “species-specific delivery hopper” is being designed to administer the spiked food.
Red squirrels were recently named by The Mammal Society as being on the Red List of Britain’s endangered animals, with experts warning they could face extinction in 10 year without action.
Spotting one is now a very rare sight, but hope now lays with conservation projects like this to ensure this beautiful creature can thrive once again.