Why hunters say they have grey squirrels in their sights

April 26 2019
Why hunters say they have grey squirrels in their sights

THEY have killed more than 400 grey squirrels in the area since the start of the year.

The coordinator of the Grey Area 167, which is culling the animals around Thornbury, the Frome Valley, Yate and Dursley, says the group’s controversial campaign aims to protect trees and ultimately help reintroduce the native red squirrel across the country.

The group is part of national organisation the Grey Area – the 167 relates to the area on an Ordnance Survey Explorer map – which coordinates and documents grey squirrel culling.

Grey squirrels first arrived in the UK from America as a curiosity in the 1870’s. But they have outcompeted reds and there are now over 2 million of them, with only 150,000 red squirrels left. In the Thornbury area, red squirrels disappeared in the 1960’s.

Grey Area 167 coordinator Mike Popham, pictured above, says the damage that grey squirrels cause is changing the nature of our woodlands.

He said: “The squirrels damage the top of tree branches, stripping off bark. If you ever climb into the top of a tree you just look down and see the carnage from there.”

They will eat chicks and fledglings and eggs out of nests, so they impact on the songbird population. They monopolise food sources and habitats.

The bigger problem is the grey squirrels eating all the nuts of certain species of tree, so you have carpets of certain species, such as ash, but very few others. The ash can then be hit by ash dieback disease, decimating our woodland on two fronts.”

A DEFRA spokesperson confirmed grey squirrels can be legally killed all year round by a variety of methods, including shooting and trapping, adding: “The UK is committed to reducing the impact of invasive non-native species within our borders.”

But Mike accepts that what he is doing is controversial.

He said: “In areas like ours, where we’ve lost our cute fluffy red mascot and people enjoy seeing the greys, they argue we should accept the invader and leave them be.

For years ecologists have been telling public landowners like councils and wildlife trusts that the problem is really bad – but for reasons of cost and sensitivity they often opt not to do anything. So the problem has been getting a lot worse over some time.”

Members of the Grey Area 167 use live traps to catch then shoot the animals with an air weapon. They also tempt the squirrels to feeding stations in an area where it’s safe to shoot.

But for culling to be effective, neighbouring landowners need to coordinate their efforts to stop greys repopulating culled areas from neighbouring land.

The long term aim is to reintroduce the red squirrel nationwide and Mike says reds from Anglesey have been established in Snowdonia, although greys have to be “relentlessly” hunted down to allow them to re-populate.