Report from Chris Smith.
EVEN to those dedicated to saving animals, the issue of managing the
squirrel population can be a grey area. Especially if your first
priority is to the red variety, which is under threat from its larger,
Now a group looking after red squirrels has accused a small animal rescue organisation of acting illegally and irresponsibly by releasing greys back into the wild.
A website run by Meon Valley Squirrel Rescue, a family-run centre in Hampshire with a network of helpers, has indicated it is releasing injured or orphaned greys back into the wild despite this being illegal.
The website states: "It is technically illegal to release a grey squirrel back into the wild, but it is surprising how often a squirrel will 'escape' after treatment and recovery!!! If you think your squirrel is ready to escape, the ideal place is where it originally came from, assuming that it is safe (away from traffic and people) and is unlikely to upset commercial foresters or gamekeepers."
The advice has angered red squirrel experts who say the release of greys into the wild is unacceptable in Scotland and has to be stopped. Just last month the Scottish Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation was launched, saying that reds in Scotland continue to be threatened, particularly by development, woodland management and competition from the grey squirrel.
There are about 121,000 red squirrels in Scotland - about 75 per cent of the UK population. They are outnumbered by greys which were introduced to Britain from the US between 1876 and 1929.
Dr Gus Jones, spokesman for Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, which is represented on the Scottish Squirrel Group, said: "Our native red squirrels are threatened in large measure because of past ill-considered introductions of the North American grey squirrel. It is vital that grey squirrels do not invade `red-only' areas.
"The Scottish Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation just launched, spells out the need to concentrate efforts on stopping the spread of grey squirrels into new areas.
"The long-term survival of red squirrels in Britain may hinge on keeping pinewoods in Strathspey Morayshire Grampian and the north of Scotland free of greys. These efforts could so easily be undermined by irresponsible and illegal actions that seem to be advocated on this website."
Lindsey Maguire, who runs the squirrel rescue centre with his wife, said: "We are involved with animal rescue and if someone brings you a squirrel what can you do? You can't just throw it in the bin. If you are an animal rescuer you take in all sorts of animals and your instinct is to try to preserve its life."
He said in the last year he has helped about 20 people, each with one grey squirrel, release them into area already with greys. He added: "I'm not breeding them and not encouraging people to be irresponsible, all I'm doing is saving the occasional life."
A spokeswoman for Scottish Natural Heritage said: "According to section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 it is illegal to release alien species such as grey squirrels into the wild. So if you found an injured grey squirrel your choice would be to take it to a vet to have it put down or keep it in captivity for the rest of its life."
© The Scotsman, 2 nd March 2004
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