For years Great Britain has been the scene of a tragic conflict between two related but incompatible species: the North American eastern gray squirrel (or simply the grey squirrel, as it is known in England); and the red squirrel of Europe. The gray squirrel was introduced to England about a century ago, and in the years since has spread throughout all of England and Wales and into Scotland.
And wherever the gray squirrel has proliferated, the red has been the victim. The gray squirrel is bigger than the red, eats more, and apparently out-competes the red squirrel for available resources. To make matters worse, the gray squirrel carries a virus called squirrel parapox (or just squirrel pox) that does it no harm at all, but is deadly to Eurasian red squirrels. As a result, England has lost almost its entire population of red squirrels. Scotland, where reds are still plentiful in some areas, is now waging a war to drive back the spread of the gray squirrels.
Unfortunately, this war involves some tactics that, however well intentioned, are to say the least unpleasant to anyone who cares about animals. For the past three years, the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels (SSRS) project has been conducting a cull of gray squirrels, funded by government grants and carried out by a team of "control officers" aided by sympathetic landowners. The cull involves trapping gray squirrels, and then dispatching them with either a gunshot or a blow to the head. So far the group has killed 7,483 gray squirrels, at a cost of a little more than 460 thousand pounds (that's more than 700 thousand dollars). Just today, SSRS announced that funding for the project has been renewed for at least two more years.
According to SSRS, the project has been a success, having stabilized and in some areas increased the number of red squirrels, while reducing the gray squirrel population. However, even proponents of the project say that the cull must continue indefinitely or the gains will be reversed, which means unending carnage inflicted on gray squirrels who share none of the blame for their presence in the British Isles.
Which leads to a point that bothers me as much as anything involved in this issue. If you take a look at how the English media covers this subject, there is an unsettling tendency to demonize the gray squirrel, as if the species had somehow made a deliberate decision to come to England and wage war on their red cousins.
For example, a headline on the website of The Telegraph declared today, "Grey squirrels blamed for decline in woodland birds." The story quotes an official with a conservation group as saying that the gray squirrels have a "case to answer" for causing population declines among some songbirds by eating the birds' eggs and nestlings. Really? A case to answer? Are the gray squirrels being put on trial? Predictably, the group that funded the research cited in this article is calling for culling of gray squirrels, despite the fact that the findings are far from conclusive and, as the article makes clear, many other factors are involved in the bird population decline.
What has happened to the red squirrel in Great Britain is an ecological tragedy and one of the best lessons on the unforeseen consequences that can result from introducing an invasive species to a new area. It is very easy for me to understand the feelings of those who, having witnessed the decline and disappearance of the red squirrels that they grew up with, want to rid the British Isles of the gray squirrel. But at the same time, the thought of slaughtering thousands upon thousands of unwitting gray squirrels, that are many generations removed from the squirrels that were brought to England years ago, with no end to the carnage in sight, makes me feel sick inside.
As an American, I'm not trying to advocate for a position on this complicated issue, which has to be resolved by the citizens of the UK. My honest personal opinion is that the culling of gray squirrels should be halted, that the process of natural selection should be allowed to run its course, and hopefully the red squirrels will over time develop a natural resistance to squirrel pox and eventually make a comeback.
Whatever approach is taken, I do wish that the British media would make it more clear to readers that this situation was caused not by squirrels, but by humans who deliberately brought gray squirrels to England because they found them "cute" and "charming."