(2 years, 4 months ago)Westminster Hall
I beg to move,
That this House has considered potential red squirrel extinction.
“This is a tale about a tail—a tail that belonged to a little red squirrel, and his name was Nutkin. He had a brother called Twinkleberry, and a great many cousins: they lived in a wood at the edge of a lake.”
That is from “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” by Beatrix Potter, written in 1903. The lake and the island that Beatrix Potter described are of course St Herbert’s Island on Derwentwater in my Copeland constituency. Sadly, the abundance of red squirrels that Beatrix Potter described—or sciurus vulgaris, to give our only native tree squirrel its Latin name—could never be enjoyed today. I believe that the decline of the red squirrel is a national tragedy. Its numbers across the UK have declined from an estimated 2.5 million, as recorded over 100 years ago, to the latest count of just 140,000, with only 15,000 left in England. It is a harrowing tale of human intervention, bounties, woodland destruction, predation and disease, but there is hope.
In Cumbria, we are just about retaining our red squirrel stronghold, thanks to the dedication of volunteer conservation groups such as the West Lakes Squirrel Initiative, which I have been proud to support.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward this matter, which I spoke to her about last night. I am very pleased that in my constituency of Strangford—particularly in Mount Stewart, which is run by the National Trust—there is a red squirrel conservation project, which is ably supported and very successful. Alongside that, there are the red squirrel projects at Rosemount in Grey Abbey and on the Ballywalter estate, which are two shooting estates. Does she agree that when it comes to preserving the red squirrel, the eradication or removal of the grey squirrel is important, because of the pox that it carries, and that to do that we need the co-operation of landowners, shooting organisations and rural pursuit organisations? If so, does she feel that perhaps the Government should encourage those groups to be involved in efforts to save the red squirrel?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent intervention and pre-empts much of what I want to say today. I share his sentiment entirely. The threats from squirrel pox and deforestation in the form of clear felling, and the difficulty in accessing land to control grey squirrels, mean that the task of red squirrel conservation is far from easy.
“The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” was written in 1903 by a wonderful author and illustrator who obviously adored red squirrels. However, in that same year, and for decades afterwards, a bounty on red squirrels would lead to more than 100,000 being killed in the Scottish highlands alone. Rewards were paid for their bushy tails for over 43 years. If only those gamekeepers, foresters and country folk could have had a crystal ball. Man has a lot to answer for.
In 1876 some bright spark thought that it would be a good idea to introduce the larger and more prolifically breeding grey squirrel from North America to Cheshire. The grey squirrel out-competes our native reds for habitat, food and reproduction, and grey squirrels carry, but are not affected by, the fatal virus of squirrel pox. It is estimated that there are now 3.5 million grey squirrels living in the UK, compared with just 140,000 red squirrels, and it is widely agreed by scientists, Government Departments, wildlife trusts and conservationists that grey squirrels and red squirrels cannot cohabit. Without exception, where there are live greys, there will be dead reds.
I am sorry that I am unable to stay and listen to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), as I have red squirrels in my garden on the Island. Does my hon. Friend agree that the real point is that besides having more trees and the right trees—I speak as a life member of the Woodland Trust—we need to move the boundaries, so that red squirrels get more land area and grey squirrels get squeezed out? It is not a question of eliminating grey squirrels from the whole country; it is a question of expanding the area where red squirrels can thrive and prosper.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Creating such a ring of steel around the red squirrel strongholds is absolutely imperative. This debate is not about a national effort to control greys and secure the reds; we have to concentrate on stronghold areas if we are to win the battle.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. We in Barrow and Furness are with her in wishing to preserve the red squirrel. However, what does she say to those detractors who would say that in fact she is nothing more than a squirrel racist? 1870—the time when grey squirrels were released into Britain—was also when Barrow shipyard was built and most Barrovians arrived in the area. I do not imagine that she would suggest herding up Barrovians and removing them from their native Cumbria. Can she say more about how grey squirrels will be protected alongside what is rightly a drive to preserve the red squirrel?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that I of course would not want to see Barrovians rounded up and banished from Barrow. The point is that the native red squirrel and the North American grey squirrel cannot cohabit, and that is because grey squirrels carry the squirrel pox virus but have themselves developed immunity to it.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She will be aware of the pioneering work on the Isle of Anglesey by the well-known Red Squirrels Trust and by Dr Craig Shuttleworth. Being an island, we have natural boundaries and we have preserved them. However, an important point was made about woodland. We need the correct woodland, and in the forests of Newborough and Pentraeth the number of breeding pairs of squirrels has gone up from none to more than 350. That is a success story, where we have natural boundaries as well as the proper woodland and habitat. With the onset of the debate on climate change, surely now is the time to plant the right trees in the right places to help the environment and squirrels’ habitats?
Planting the right kind of trees is absolutely imperative, but we must also be careful of unintended consequences, because allowing trees to be planted that can create a wildlife corridor for grey squirrels to infiltrate red squirrel strongholds would be disastrous. It takes just one grey squirrel to infiltrate a red squirrel community, and then the squirrel pox virus will tear through the entire population, with devastating consequences.
“Belinda: The Forest How Red Squirrel” is another book that I find utterly enchanting. Red squirrels from the Forest How guest house in Eskdale are brought to life by Peter Trimming, who I am pleased to say is in the Public Gallery today. The bushy-tailed, tufted-eared, bright-eyed visitors to the garden feed tables are portrayed as tame creatures, with brilliant and detailed photography. However, the book goes on to tell the story of red squirrel suffering, as one by one there are fatalities until the last red squirrel, affectionately known as Belinda, sadly dies.
The first signs of squirrel pox are that the squirrel is lethargic and lacking in co-ordination, and the sick squirrels will develop open lesions on their eyes, mouth, ears and paws. The little tufty ears wither, leaving the blind and helpless animal to die a painful, slow death of hypothermia, starvation and, inevitably, predation. Squirrel pox does not discriminate between an old red or a lactating mother, and an infected female with young in the drey would probably leave her kittens to perish, too, through hypothermia, starvation or predation. It is highly unlikely that a red squirrel will recover from squirrel pox—in over 90% of cases they die. Some say that only 5% survive. Indeed, some say that it is unheard of for a red squirrel ever to recover from squirrel pox.
Given the current rate of decline, if we are agreed that our children and grandchildren should, like us, be inspired by Beatrix Potter’s books and see for themselves our most iconic native British wildlife in the wild, we must act quickly. It has been said that the fight for red squirrel survival will be futile, but thankfully in life, although there are those who say things cannot be done, there are also people who refuse to accept defeat. There are people who give up hours, days, weeks and years of their own time and spend their own money because they are determined to be part of this greatest revival—people such as Peter Armstrong and Steve Tyson, who work throughout the year in my Copeland constituency in the name of red squirrel conservation with a committed team of supporters. I commend their efforts, and those of all volunteers who go out in all weathers, across rough terrain, in wind and rain against the odds to save the reds.
Red squirrel conservation requires many factors, including the permission of landowners, the skills of a marksman or markswoman, and the bulk purchase of nuts and corn, feeders, trail cameras and traps. It is a costly hobby; it requires risk assessment, quality control, promotion and fundraising, bid-writing, account-keeping, and driving for miles and miles. It requires monitoring and collaboration, dealing with countless setbacks, and relentless commitment. The revival of the reds is possible—perhaps not right across this great nation, but in areas of the north of England, Devon, Anglesey, Scotland, and in the glens of Northern Ireland and on the Isle of Wight, we can effectively keep areas of our countryside free from grey squirrels and therefore avoid unhelpful competition for habitat and food and the awful, painful, deadly squirrel pox virus.
I ask the Minister to consider the asks of those volunteers and conservation groups ahead of the development of a strategy for red squirrels in England. During my research for this debate, what really struck me was the extent of consensus and collaboration. Nobody—no organisation or wildlife trust that I have spoken with—disagrees that where there are live grey squirrels, there will be dead red squirrels. The North American grey squirrels will always outcompete our native reds, and there is currently no vaccination or cure for the deadly virus that will be spread throughout a red squirrel community.
There are some solutions in the pipeline, from the release of predatory pine martens to infertility potions being administered to grey squirrels in Nutella chocolate and hazelnut spread. In the name of red squirrel conservation, a pile of research is being invested in, but those solutions will all take time to develop and may not be deemed viable in all areas. It is extra tricky in the few areas of the UK that currently enjoy a red squirrel population. Although the pine marten release project may work well in areas void of red squirrels, and it may be that the pine marten would struggle to capture the lighter, more nimble red squirrel, the same could not be said for a drey of young red kittens, which would surely make a tasty, easy meal for such a voracious carnivore.
Pine martens may have their place in the great grey challenge, but introducing a predator when a population is already on the edge of survival does not seem like the best idea. There have been reported sightings of pine martens carrying dead red squirrels, which confirm my concern. It is also important to note that the red squirrel is one of many mammals and birds that are threatened in our countryside. The pine marten, a member of the weasel family, became extinct in England over 150 years ago because we humans decided that it was eating too many birds’ eggs and small mammals. However, it is thriving in North America, where its main source of food is the grey squirrel.
The concept of a contraception or infertility potion is being developed by the Animal and Plant Health Agency. It requires a method of administration that is targeted only at grey squirrels, because the compound is not specific to squirrels and would, if ingested, cause other mammals to become infertile. Research on a contraceptive compound is currently in the second year of its five-year project, and hopes are high that in future it will provide another tool for the humane management of grey squirrels and perhaps other mammals. However, until then, the compound is not being used; the last thing we would want is for a red squirrel, or indeed any other wildlife, to become infertile because it happened upon a tasty dollop of chocolate and hazelnut spread. Much research into a squirrel pox vaccine is underway by the Wildlife Ark Trust; that vaccine is being heralded as a possible saviour of the red squirrel, but that is also some way from being the finished article.
From what I have seen in our Cumbrian countryside, the simple, clean shot cull is by far the most effective and humane method of grey squirrel control, and therefore of red squirrel conservation. However, one landowning organisation requires some further encouragement to embrace those commendable volunteer actions, and I call upon the Minister to gently urge some progress in that regard. The Forestry Commission does not allow volunteer groups to shoot grey squirrels on its land, even though those groups are trained and fully insured. In contrast, deer control is undertaken in those same publicly owned forests, using high-powered rifles. Where red squirrels are present, trapping clearly carries the risk of the unintentional entrapment of a lactating mother, and the subsequent death of her kittens, which, even if left alone for only a short period of time, would starve, become hypothermic or succumb to a predator.
Grey squirrel re-invasion is a major threat, even to successful eradication projects such as those in Anglesey and west Cumbria. Ongoing grey squirrel control is necessary in all mainland areas where red squirrels are present, to prevent grey squirrels making re-incursions. That requires continuous effort, and there is a need constantly to find resources. Landowners may obtain grants to control grey squirrels, which are paid providing there is some evidence of effort. That is not necessarily the most efficient use of resources.
The Forestry Act 1967 does not allow authorities in England and Wales to refuse tree-felling licences in order to conserve or enhance flora or fauna. Although red squirrels are protected from deliberate injury or killing, and their nests or dreys are also protected, the habitat they need is not. Clear felling of habitat happens even in the breeding season. I understand from many conservation groups that responded to my call for evidence that timber harvesting companies can use that legal loophole—the incidental result of an otherwise lawful act. I ask the Minister to consider making tree-felling licence authorities able to refuse licences or issue enforceable wildlife conditions. The Forest Stewardship Council’s stamp of approval must require the protection of red squirrel habitat if it is to be worth anything meaningful.
This year, as part of the Government’s commitment to delivering the 25-year environment plan, the Red Squirrels United project—funded by the EU LIFE programme and the National Lottery Heritage Fund—is developing a strategy for red squirrels in England, in collaboration with the UK Squirrel Accord and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is my request that this strategy and action plan reflects today’s debate, and considers what more could be done by a Department that has achieved so much in the name of environmental protection.
I congratulate the hon. Lady not only on securing the debate, but on her enduring interest in the matter, which I and many others share. Does she agree that we need to hear from the Minister, and from the various other Ministers across the United Kingdom, about a project or plan for the next 15 or 20 years? A written answer that I got from the Minister indicates that in England alone there are 150 greys for every single red, so there needs to be a 15 to 20-year project that would ensure not just the survival but the flourishing of the reds.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely correct; the issue requires a long-term strategy of collaboration that is appropriately resourced. That is the only way we will ensure that our children and grandchildren will enjoy the benefits, as we have, of our native British wildlife.
The hon. Lady is talking about funding, which is important. One important source for conservation in the UK has been European structural funds, particularly in relation to public land owners and the community working together to preserve and increase the number of red squirrels. Will she join me in pressing the Minister to use the shared prosperity fund post Brexit in the same positive way when it comes to wildlife and the preservation of species such as the red squirrel?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I join him in making that point to the Minister. As we lose some funding, we must ensure that alternative funding pots become available for this worthwhile and urgent project.
I thank the many individuals and organisations who have contributed very helpful and detailed briefings, including Dr Craig Shuttleworth, Jackie Foott, the National Trust, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Red Squirrels United and the UK Squirrel Accord, which is a UK-wide partnership of 37 leading conservation and woodland organisations, Government agencies and companies, founded by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.
The key asks from all those organisations focus on: ensuring long-term, sustainable funding; amending the Forestry Act 1967 to ensure that key vulnerable flora and fauna are protected in the licensing process; ensuring that the 1967 Act contains a requirement to consider the landscape level of impacts of continuous tree felling licences; and, most importantly, effectively enforcing the Invasive Non-native Species (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. I also thank the Wildlife Trust, which shared a photograph of a litter of four red squirrels orphaned after a tree hosting their drey was felled, and the Woodland Trust, which rightly points out that grey squirrel control is not at all effective unless control is undertaken by the majority of neighbouring landowners, whose combined efforts improve viability and effectiveness.
I commend, celebrate and thank the thousands of people who work all year round to protect our wildlife in the fight against decline. I hope that the Minister and colleagues across the House will join me in appreciating the selfless effort required.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing this debate. Formby in my constituency is regarded as the mainland’s southernmost stronghold for red squirrels. We have red squirrels on the Isle of Wight, Brownsea Island and Anglesey, but Formby is the furthest south on the mainland. Reds are found elsewhere in the Liverpool city region too. My wife and I enjoy walking our dog in the pine woods by Formby beach, where we find red squirrels. The National Trust has done superb work over many years to ensure that the woods, the dunes and the habitat there are maintained and that the red squirrel population is looked after. That red squirrel wood at Formby is a real treat for anyone visiting the area and is a place to find red squirrels in good numbers.
Conservation is going on in a strong way in Formby. It follows the foresight of Weld-Blundell family in planting pine woods on the dunes at Formby in the late 1800s, which created the ideal habitat for red squirrels and many other species. The trees provide a valuable windbreak for the asparagus fields and the neighbouring residential area. The next-door dunes are also home to the natterjack toad, the sand lizard, the northern dune tiger beetle and birds including skylarks and willow warblers. It is a fine place of nature conservation.
In Formby, other neighbouring villages and some of the smaller towns, the red squirrels have a place of affection among the public. People are fully aware of the precarious position that the red squirrel is in and how endangered the species really is. People are extremely fond of them and are encouraged by the National Trust and other conservation organisations to look out for grey squirrels and to alert the authorities when they come across them. They are also encouraged to look for signs, particularly in late summer and the autumn, of potential squirrel pox. As the hon. Lady said, it is almost certainly fatal to all reds, whereas greys have acquired immunity to it.
The reds are extremely tame. They are happy to approach humans and are generally not put off by humans being nearby, although I think my dog is probably a bit too much for them on the occasions when we walk him near the squirrels. He is always on a lead, I hasten to add, in case anyone has concerns, although I am not sure what he would do if the opportunity arose. I think he would be more curious than a threat to them. The squirrels can be found in gardens, although when I told some of my constituents that this debate was taking place, one of them pointed out that when she was encouraged as a child to feed red squirrels, she was bitten. We had one discordant voice, but that was the only such piece of feedback that I received. They are genuinely very popular, and with good reason, too. I filmed a red squirrel that decided to dart between my legs in the course of what he was doing. He was quite happy to be close to me. That was actually in Cumbria. Cumbrian red squirrels are very friendly, but they are very friendly in Formby and across the Liverpool city region too.
The hon. Lady spoke about the impact of greys. They impact not only on red squirrels, but on trees, which are the habitat for the reds. The damage that greys cause is widespread. I am tempted to wander into a debate on climate change at this point, because when trees are damaged, it reduces their effectiveness at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Greys certainly cause damage that undermines the habitat for red squirrels and the other species I have mentioned. It is extremely important that we protect native species, and this debate contrasts the importance of native species against those that have come from overseas.
I am grateful to the National Trust in Formby and the national organisation for their briefings about the good work done at Formby. I am also grateful to the Woodland Trust. All the briefings stressed the importance of controlling the numbers of greys. The National Trust also stressed to me the importance of the funding it receives and of having greater funding to maintain and enhance the landscape—the habitat and the trees. There have been concerns about the thinning out of trees at Formby, for example. Important work has been carried out by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, including on the Merseyside red squirrel project. It is also part of the national Red Squirrels United project, which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Those projects are extremely important. The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of supporting the existing strongholds, and she is right about that as a strategy, but we can never take it for granted. We have to be extremely alert and work extremely hard to maintain that work. Funding is extremely important. I hope the Minister can confirm that the Government intend to maintain and potentially enhance funding in this area.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention the strongholds of Formby, the Isle of Wight, Cumbria and my constituency of Anglesey. The money to conserve this important species and habit also creates an economic benefit from tourism coming to the area. He knows that the Anglesey beaches, with the woodlands in close proximity, are a great example of that, so does he agree that this is about giving money not only to conservation groups, but to the local economy and community to invest for the future?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was heartened to hear from his previous interventions and in my research for this debate about the work in Anglesey and the impressive way in which the red squirrel population has been defended and the greys pushed back. Certainly in Formby, the investment promotes tourism and we get many visitors, but that also brings challenges, as he will know. Sometimes too many visitors try to get into a small area with limited roads and parking, but that is for another debate.
The Woodland Trust briefing made the point that the introduction of pine martens as a natural predator against the greys has seen early signs of success. I understand that that is also the case around the country. Because the greys are slower, the pine martens are more likely to attack and catch them. As the reds are faster, nimbler and smaller, they are more likely to escape, so natural predation is effectively being used to control the greys and protect the reds. I am interested in the Minister’s analysis of the evidence on that point, which the hon. Member for Copeland mentioned. We could do with some clarification, so let us look at the evidence and at what works.
Control of greys is a real problem. In Formby in 2007-08, squirrel pox led to the deaths of 85% of red squirrels in the area. Thanks to the brilliant work of the National Trust and the many local volunteers, there has been a good recovery, but I am sad to report what has been described as an “intense burst” of red squirrel deaths in Formby recently. The Wildlife Trust is currently testing to see whether squirrel pox is the cause.
Finally, I want to turn to the environment Bill. Protections of habitat are crucial, as we have discussed. The proposed office for environmental protection will have responsibility for monitoring, and it is vital that the regulatory framework is fit for purpose once we leave the EU. Currently, the European Commission exercises influence and power in an effective way. The current proposals suggest that the office for environmental protection will sit with the Government and will not have the independence that the European regulatory arrangements give. Concerns have been raised about that level of independence and whether the regime will be sufficiently robust to maintain the necessary oversight. We need a little more detail from the Minister and the Secretary of State in the part of the Bill that is yet to be published, with tangible and clear targets for restoring the natural environment to support red squirrels and other species.
I have two asks in this debate. The first is for funding for control and protection work, including spreading the word about red squirrels. They do not often bite. They are a fabulous part of our natural world in the UK. We need to raise awareness and provide support to prevent the spread of grey squirrels and disease. Secondly, we need a robust framework in the environment Bill. There are 17 strongholds for this iconic British animal. The red squirrel deserves our full support, but it needs action, not words.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing this important debate. I declare an interest: my family own and manage woodland in Northumberland and we are passionate red squirrel protectors, so I am proud to come with a natural bias. The reason why the native British squirrel, which happens to have red fur, is under threat of extinction, is because men of wealth—I have yet to find any evidence of female culpability—with an interest in zoological matters in the late Victorian era, when travel and discovery of previously unknown wildlife became fashionable, decided that bringing grey non-native squirrels from the United States would improve their standing, feed their curiosity and perhaps even help to advance scientific understanding.
Every mother dreads that moment over tea when her child declares that they need to bring into school some strange object or picture that clearly requires parental assistance and time, just as they are trying to put their kids to bed. And so it was that when I was told by my then six-year-old that a project on the red squirrel was the following day’s activity and we needed to take in project information and pictures, my heart sank. I wondered how on earth I could assist that very enthusiastic young boy by providing something that had not simply come off the internet. We were in the stage of development when the internet was not the solution to all questions and we could still use books to elucidate new material.
We disappeared into an old musty corner of the house where my father-in-law’s grandfather’s books were kept—they had never been opened in my time in the house—and discovered a series on interesting zoological subjects. I pulled one off the shelf and flicked through, looking for “red squirrel”, but could not find it, which was very confusing. I looked through again and saw “squirrel”, only to realise that in 1923, when the book was published, the conversation was still about the squirrel. The red squirrel was a given; that was the colour of our squirrel. We flicked through and saw a wonderful line about a gentleman who had brought some grey squirrels to London and placed them at the Zoological Society—London Zoo—and everyone was fascinated to see the big grey squirrel, which was described as a curiosity. Also, they had bred so successfully that they had let them out into Regent’s Park. It was fascinating to watch a six-year-old go, “How did that happen? Weren’t they a scientific curiosity?” Perhaps no child understands this, but the point is that something entirely exciting and positive can have incredibly long-term repercussions.
My son took in the musty old book, which did not match the internet submissions that other parents had dug out late at night to support the project of the day, but it led to a school trip to Wallington Hall, a National Trust property in my constituency. It is a wonderful place with 13,000 acres of farm and woodland that now has a vibrant community of red squirrels, thanks to the conservation efforts after near extinction in 2011. When the schoolchildren went to visit in 2008, the red squirrel population had almost disappeared. They went with their exciting project in mind and were told by those working at Wallington that there was a real problem. It was fascinating to watch that next generation become aware of the need for conservation. Wallington is a wonderful house and garden to visit. It is a huge part of the Northumberland tourism industry and provides an opportunity to bring people out from Newcastle to enjoy a beautiful rural existence.
The National Trust has led in investing in finding ways to preserve and restore the red squirrel population. At Wallington, we have our very own red squirrel ranger, Glen Graham, a wonderful man, who has led the way in supporting and protecting our native squirrel population, and working out the best ways to do that in what is, helpfully, a relatively contained woodland environment. He provides food, because the greys eat more than the reds, and he keeps predators away with a lot of humane trapping. He also tries to keep the humans away.
We have wonderful traffic signs on the roads that say, “Squirrels crossing here—please slow down”. Realising how much we all need to do has been a really interesting part of the community’s involvement in the red squirrel project. Every time people drive into town they drive past those signs and slow down, sometimes so that they can peer over the hedge to see the red squirrel who might just be crossing. The National Trust has been profoundly involved, and was a founder member of the UK Squirrel Accord. Across Northumberland and the rest of the UK, landowners and farmers are committing time and resource to trapping grey squirrels. The only way is to rebalance the numbers. The greys will just take over the woodland space if they can.
There are three real threats, one of which is clearly disease. We have discussed the squirrel pox, for which the grey is a carrier and by which the red is almost always fatally affected. That is a technical problem, which we need to continue to work on. We must find a vaccine against it so that the red has a chance to compete, at least on that level, in a fair and balanced way. Competition for food is also clearly a huge challenge, simply because the grey eats more in a day and has more of an impact on trees. The reds just cannot keep up.
A fundamental part of that is the question of the amount of woodland habitat that we need. The grey poses a greater threat to our woodlands, as they strip bark from the broadleaf trees for food and for building dreys. That can leave a tree vulnerable to disease, creating weaker, disfigured trees, and that can reduce seed production through crown loss and then depressed timber values. There is an all-round negative impact on the woodland, which requires long-term investment.
We need to plant more broadleaf woodland to create more areas of potential home for our native red squirrel. I raise again with the Minister the logistical challenges put before any landowner wanting to plant new woodland. Our manifesto commitment to 11 million new trees through this Parliament is proving far from likely to be achieved. The Forestry Commission and Natural England seem intent on thwarting progress, with endless internal battles that leave the private investor at a loss regarding how to make any progress.
The Minister will recall the interventions, for which we are still grateful, that she had to make to help the Doddington forest project to get under way. She will be pleased to know that it is now planted, despite years of effort to slow its progress. Local children helped to plant it. The Northumbrian red squirrel population is now waiting for those trees to grow into a new home for them and their families in the decades ahead. In the meantime, because trees grow very slowly, I call on the Government to increase their support for and investment in grey squirrel reduction projects, in order to leave space for our Squirrel Nutkins.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing this important debate. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and thank you for interpreting the rules generously enough to allow me to speak. I will be very brief, but I think the debate would benefit from having an opinion from the Isle of Wight, where we have a sizeable red squirrel population.
As we have heard, red squirrels are the only squirrel native to the British Isles. They are disappearing from the mainland at an alarming rate, having been replaced by the American grey squirrel. Looking at a map of England, what is truly upsetting for people who love the reds, as I do, is that there are only two red squirrel hot spots south of the Mersey: one is in Anglesey, of which the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) just spoke; the other is on the Isle of Wight.
Out of a red squirrel population of 140,000 in the United Kingdom, between 3,000 and 3,500 at its height are on the Isle of Wight. We know that thanks to excellent work done by the Wight Squirrel Project and the Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Trust. We also produce some fantastic T-shirts and hoodies with red squirrels holding up a 30 mph speed limit sign, like those my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) mentioned. I have, on a couple of occasions in the last few years, seen the bodies of red squirrels on the road. It always angers me when they wind up dead on the road, because we do not have enough of them.
The Isle of Wight is a stronghold for red squirrels because we are an island. The Solent is thankfully a barrier to grey squirrels. I was told recently—I am not sure whether it is an urban myth—that we once turned back a ferry, not because it had mainlanders on it, who are very welcome to visit, but because there was a grey squirrel on it. The ferry was held up, we found the grey squirrel, and it got off—it probably did not have a ticket anyway. We do not want greys on the Isle of Wight. As we know, it takes only one grey to spread disease among the population of reds. It is illegal to bring a grey squirrel into red squirrel territory and the penalty is two years imprisonment or a £5,000 fine.
Red squirrels are truly beautiful animals. About five years ago, I was living in an even more remote place than I am now. It was a mile and a half down a single-track lane, and as I drove back in the evening buzzards would fly overhead, and badgers and the occasional red squirrel would run across the road. I drove very slowly. A red squirrel came and sat on my porch once and ate some nuts. It was no further away from me than my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is now. It was the most beautiful and special animal, and we need to ensure that we protect their habitats.
The Island is about 10% woodland, and that is increasing slowly. What we have not done, and what we probably need to do nationally, is ensure that where possible we link woodland environments together to enable the reds to have greater space in which to flourish and reproduce, because reds have a lower living density than grey squirrels. They need more woodland and undergrowth to support the same population, because they are slightly more solitary animals than grey squirrels.
We do not have many deer on the Isle of Wight, so I think an environmental expert would say that our understory trees and our young shoots are in better condition than those in parts of Britain with a deer population that tends to eat shoots and harm the growth of understory trees. However, I would be delighted to hear from the Minister what more the Government can do to support projects to reforest parts of the United Kingdom with broadleaf trees—not conifers, which acidify the soil and do not do enough to support insect life, bird life, and red squirrel and other mammal life.
I have been listening to the points made by my hon. Friend and others about the connection between red squirrels and greys, red squirrels and predators, and red squirrels and trees. There is a connection between all those different elements of wildlife management. We have some red squirrels on the island of Caldey, in my patch. In order to get them there, we had to eradicate rats, which led to a revival in ground-nesting birds. Is not the point that the Government should take a holistic approach—not picking on one species and one method of enhancing or controlling it, but looking at wildlife, and the way in which we manage it, in the round to make it a success?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly valuable point: what is good for red squirrels is generally good for most native species. As we know, three varieties of tree—oak, hawthorn and English willows—support hundreds more insect varieties, which in turn support more bird life and wildlife of all sorts than conifers especially.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister about all the good work that the Government are doing to support red squirrel populations and other wildlife populations in Britain.
I had not intended to speak but, there being a little time available, I will do so briefly, largely because I serve on the Environmental Audit Committee, which is currently carrying out an investigation into invasive species. Of course, the grey squirrel is a classic example of what can happen when an invasive species arrives on these islands.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing this extremely important debate, and I listened very carefully to the contributions of other Members. We are unanimous in thinking that the red squirrel is a wonderful native creature, which we must do what we can to preserve. There is no question about that at all. I do not think that a single person would disagree, although I must admit that I rather agree with the flattering remarks made about the greys all through the debate—that we are stronger, more aggressive and bigger—but that is on a personal level, rather than on a squirrel level. I mention in passing an interesting point that so far no one has mentioned this morning. The House will be interested to know that Germans cannot pronounce the word squirrel; it is the only word in the English language that no German can pronounce. Rather curiously, we cannot pronounce the German word for squirrel either. That is a curious little fact that the House ought to know!
The Environmental Audit Committee is studying invasive species at the moment, including such exotic things as the floating pennywort, the American crayfish and all sorts of Asian wasps, as well as the grey squirrel. They all have one thing in common: once they are here, it is almost impossible to get rid of them. In the Environmental Audit Committee, we are looking at the degree to which we can control such species—for example, keeping them in one area—or whether extermination is better.
I had a very interesting time last year when I visited the island of South Georgia in Antarctica, where there has been an immensely successful operation to remove rats. Rats and mice were brought there by whalers over the centuries. Over the last couple of years, the South Georgia Heritage Trust has invested in the order of £10 million in using aerial dispersal of rat poison to eradicate the rat population entirely. As a result, we have seen a significant improvement in the pipit and other native species on the island of South Georgia as a result. They also eradicated 10,000 reindeer, which were devastating the habitat that the native South Georgian population needed.
It has been interesting to hear the description of the Isle of Wight this morning; I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). We also heard of an island I did not know about in Wales from my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) spoke of Anglesey. These are islands. Although this is not exactly easy, as these things have to be carried out very carefully—biosecurity is enormously important, and the biosecurity going on to South Georgia was simply extraordinary, as we had to inspect every aspect of our luggage and clothes and so on to make sure that there was not a single possibility of any kind of invasive species getting on to the island—none the less, islands can be protected. It is reasonably straightforward and simple to make sure that we do.
The mainland of the United Kingdom is, of course, more difficult. A glance at the maps of the red squirrel population over the centuries and that of the grey squirrel over the last 150 years demonstrates how they move inexorably forward. I very strongly congratulate some of the initiatives that we have heard about this morning. There has been wonderful work done in Northumberland and elsewhere, where individual organisations have fought manfully—personfully—to make sure that they keep the grey squirrel at bay. They do wonderful work, and, in one or two places, they have forced the grey squirrel back, but it is pretty much an ad hoc operation. If they take their eye off the ball for one second, the grey squirrel will be right back to where it was before, and pushing further northwards, until such time that—as the motion for the debate says—we risk the extinction of the red squirrel. Unless we do something about it, that is what is going to happen, and we should be aware of that in this place. We have lost so many species over the centuries and within the next century or so there is a very real risk, if not a probability, of the total and utter eradication—extermination—of the entire red squirrel population in the United Kingdom, perhaps leaving aside pockets here and there.
We have not yet discussed the solutions, and perhaps the Minister will come on to that in a moment. There are the ad hoc solutions we have discussed and there are things we can do with regard to forestry and in individual areas to make sure that we preserve the pockets of red squirrels, but is that going to win in the long term? Are we going to preserve red squirrels? Are we certain that 500 years from now there will be a red squirrel population in the United Kingdom? I doubt very much that a single person in this Chamber or elsewhere this morning would swear on their lives that that would be the case, and I think it is extremely unlikely to be the case.
I hope that when the Minister addresses the matter she will consider the holistic solution described by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, which will not just preserve what we have but allow the progressive extermination of the invasive species that is the grey squirrel. It seems to me that unless we can find a way down the road—we are talking about many decades from now—unless we find a way of sending the grey squirrel back to where it came from, that is, the United States, and unless we exterminate it from the United Kingdom, it is extremely unlikely that we will keep the little blighters under control. All we have to do is to glance at South Georgia, where the rats and mice arrived with the whalers, absolutely ran over the entire island and destroyed the biodiversity of the island. Only by their eradication can we now preserve the very delicate balance of biodiversity in that island. Precisely the same applies here. The interesting and worthy projects that we have heard about are great, but we cannot be certain that they will work. If we are to be certain that we are going to keep the red squirrel for generations to come, there is only one way to be certain, and that is through finding means for the final eradication of the grey squirrel from these islands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing the debate, and on her opening remarks, the originality of which was commendable. Her knowledge of squirrels and the management of their habitat was very impressive and certainly superior to mine. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his short intervention, and other Members for their points and concerns. Apart from one, most points have been very well made. Like the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), I sit on the Environmental Audit Committee and agree that invasive species are a problem for this country and its biosecurity. A recent visit to Cambridge University revealed challenges we all face that are way beyond our ken, as far as I could see. I hope that we will learn more about how to deal with those challenges over the next few weeks.
Scotland is home to 75% of the UK’s 140,000 red squirrels. Although they are one of the most popular mammal species in the country, they are facing a number of ecological challenges, which have reduced the population. Scottish Forestry, the Scottish Government’s responsible body for forestry policy and regulation, is working with a number of partners, including Scottish Natural Heritage, to save the red squirrel for future generations.
The red squirrel is a priority species under the species action framework, which sets out a five-year plan for managing species in Scotland so that effort and resources are targeted to offer the greatest benefit. The Scottish squirrel group was established in 1996 to oversee conservation efforts and, in 2006, published the Scottish red squirrel action plan for 2006 to 2011. The plan integrates grey squirrel control, survey and monitoring with measures to combat the threat of squirrel pox, and the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project has been putting the strategy into action since 2007. Its present priorities include defending red-only areas in the northern Highlands by the targeted control of grey squirrel populations, controlling grey squirrels in north-east Scotland to reduce their distribution and abundance, defending the areas where the food sources and the environment favour red squirrels from grey squirrel incursion, and controlling grey squirrels in priority areas within the grey squirrel range in certain areas of southern Scotland, as well as the island woodland habitat of Arran.
Thanks to those conservation initiatives, and unlike in England, where there is a possibility that the red squirrel could become extinct within the next 10 years—we need to face up to that possibility—red squirrel numbers stabilised in Scotland in 2017 and grey squirrel numbers have declined. In fact, there has been a significant boost in red squirrel numbers in Aberdeenshire and they are holding their ground in the central lowlands, recolonising areas they previously abandoned. Unfortunately, however, red squirrel numbers are still falling in parts of the Scottish borders, especially where squirrel pox is present.
Since 2018, efforts to stop grey squirrels moving north of the highland line appear to be succeeding and we are all delighted. Red squirrels are now thriving in areas where they have been reintroduced into the northern highlands. There have even been suggestions of an expansion of the range of red squirrels into my own area of Falkirk and Stirlingshire. I hope those sightings are well founded.
There are many groups helping with red squirrel conservation. Men’s Shed members in Gala, Dalbeattie and Hawick made feeder boxes for this year’s Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels annual survey. The boxes have a small piece of sticky plastic—I do not know if we should be using plastic; I hope it is recyclable—that traps hair from visiting animals, which enables the presence of different species to be recorded. That is a good example of red squirrels bringing communities together, as was mentioned earlier.
The Forestry Commission of Scotland has five principles for managing a red squirrel stronghold. I will not go into the detail, but I will lay them out. The first is to manage the forest to maintain a dependable food supply. The second is to resolve conflicts with other management objectives without compromising the success of red squirrel strongholds. The third is to have a plan for red squirrels at the landscape scale. The fourth is to plan forest operations to reduce short-term impacts on populations and sustain long-term resilience. The fifth is to establish a monitoring system, which is extremely important, and a review process. That is sound advice, and we in Scotland hope this good practice will continue to show positive results for all our communities, to endure for all future generations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), my constituency neighbour, on securing the debate. I am grateful for the excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), and from the hon. Members for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) and for North Wiltshire (James Gray). I thank the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) for giving us the Scottish perspective.
I am not only Labour’s shadow Environment Secretary; I am also hugely privileged to have red squirrels in my garden. When we have visitors from outside the area, I notice that their seeing a red squirrel is an extraordinary experience. My father-in-law had wanted to see a red squirrel all his life, and it was not until he came to stay with us that he managed to do so. There is huge affection, and it demonstrates how rare they are across Britain.
My comments apply mainly to the situation in Cumbria, because I have first-hand experience of it. As we heard, everybody knows just how serious the plight of Britain’s red squirrels is. They are afforded the highest protection possible but are still hugely threatened. Sadly, they have suffered serious population decline despite our best efforts. According to the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, however, evidence is starting to suggest that the red population is being maintained in the north of England through the commitment and dedication of conservation groups. The trust estimates that we have a population of around 15,000 reds in the region.
In Cumbria, we have 14 red squirrel volunteer groups dedicated to preserving our red squirrel population. Without their important work, the long-term survival of the species would not be possible. We have five designated red squirrel reserves across the county. Although the presence of non-native grey squirrels has been the primary cause of the decline in the red population, that is not the end of the story. We heard from hon. Members about the loss of habitat, insensitive forestry operations—for example, the hon. Member for Copeland mentioned the felling and disturbing of dreys, where young squirrel kittens are present during the breeding season—and woodland fragmentation, all of which are factors that add to the pressure.
We heard a lot from hon. Members about the squirrel pox virus, which is carried by grey squirrels, and about how it has the biggest, and potentially catastrophic, impact on red squirrel populations. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central gave a good example of how that can happen. The fact that the pox has nearly a 100% mortality rate in reds shows how devastating it can be. We also know that there are problems with competition with greys for food, and their direct aggression contributes to the decline in red populations.
Volunteers do an excellent job of monitoring the grey squirrel population, and members of the public also help by reporting sightings. As in many villages in Cumbria, our village noticeboard has a sign with the details and telephone number of the local red squirrel warden, whom we call when we see greys—I have done so on a number occasions. The warden then comes out and traps the greys, in order to protect the red squirrel population in the area.
In Cumbria, the National Trust supplements reds’ diets by putting a small quantity of nuts and seeds into special squirrel feeders every morning. In fact, my husband does that in our garden and is very keen on watching and feeding reds. It helps not only monitor the population, but look out for any sick or injured red squirrels, which we can report to the volunteers and squirrel monitors.
The UK Squirrel Accord consists of 32 leading woodland, timber and conservation organisations. As we heard, it was created at the invitation of Prince Charles, with the aim of bringing a concerted and co-ordinated approach to securing the future of red squirrels and woodlands. Habitat loss is a major threat to red populations, so it is essential that protections for the areas that support them are maintained and properly enacted. That would fall under the proposed Office for Environmental Protection post Brexit, so it is absolutely vital that the proposed body and the regulations underpinning it are fit for purpose. A number of stakeholders, and the Opposition, have set out our significant concerns about its lack of independence and the lack of powers to force the Government into action if necessary. As things stand, the OEP would be weaker than our existing arrangements under EU law. Can the Minister tell us when the rest of the environment Bill will be published, and whether it will have rigorous targets for the restoration of Britain’s natural environment?
People rightly think of Cumbria as a very green county, but only 10% of it is covered by woodland. That is 3% lower than the UK average, and well below the EU average of 38%. Protection and enhancement of our woodland is absolutely paramount. The Government have talked a lot about tree planting—we heard from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that it is becoming very challenging for a number of reasons. Can the Minister tell us what assessment has been made of targeted tree planting in areas where it would benefit our red squirrel populations?
In May the House declared a state of environmental emergency. Many of our animal species are facing extinction, and the UK is set to miss our 2020 biodiversity targets. Tackling climate change and restoring our precious natural habitats go hand in hand. Restoring ecosystems not only makes significant contributions to carbon sequestration, but can safeguard populations of iconic British wildlife species such as the red squirrel.
The hon. Member for Copeland mentioned the Forestry Act 1967, and I support her request to the Minister to ensure that red squirrels are protected as part of the tree felling licensing process. Can the Minister tell us whether the Act could contain a requirement to consider the landscape-level impacts of continuous tree felling licences? Does she agree that a red squirrel conservation strategy is required to help co-ordinate and prioritise their protection and recovery across England? If we want future generations in Britain to be able to enjoy species such as the red squirrel, we need the Government to take serious action to protect and enhance the populations and their precious habitats.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) on securing the debate.
I am concerned that the squirrel is at risk of dying out. Several of the hon. Members who contributed today have left the debate. We need to be warriors if we want to protect red squirrels, and that includes staying to listen to all of the debate, which has been excellent and shows people’s passion for protecting this iconic native species. As my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland mentioned, Squirrel Nutkin has gone down in history, and I am just about old enough to remember Tufty from the road safety films that were shown in the ’70s. I believe Tufty has already reached the age of 65, so popular was he at pushing forward road safety—at some point he was replaced by the Green Cross Code Man.
The red squirrel is certainly a very special species. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) is unfortunately no longer in his place, but he knows the importance of the species. I grew up in Formby and, to be candid, I did not realise that grey squirrels existed until I came to London as a student—I could not see a single red squirrel anywhere, and there were grey squirrels all over the place. That is when I learned of the terrible impact that grey squirrels have had on our native species.
As has been pointed out, the red squirrel is protected by domestic legislation and is currently found in a number of strongholds across England, including the north of England and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). The red squirrel is also present in larger numbers in Scotland, and the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) quite rightly set out the great success of protection north of the border. There is also a limited population on Anglesey in Wales, and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who is no longer in his place, highlighted the projects undertaken there to increase the number of red squirrels. That is a devolved matter, but I am sure that hon. Members will recognise the contributions that we can make, which is why, as the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) pointed out, it was important that all four nations came together for the UK Squirrel Accord and to work with many non-governmental organisations, landowners and so on.
The red squirrel is under attack; not from humans, but from the grey squirrel. The grey squirrel is an invasive species from North America that has a significant impact on our native trees—broadleaves in particular—by stripping bark and eating bulbs, and on our protected species, including the red squirrel. The Government are committed to protecting and expanding red squirrel populations, and to tackling the threat that grey squirrels pose to them, particularly the tendency to spread squirrel pox, to which red squirrels are far more susceptible. Preserving biosecurity, including the elimination of non-native species, especially those that jeopardise our native species, is very important to us. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) rightly mentioned the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry, and I assure him that this Government are absolutely committed to doing what we can to eradicate such species.
I fear that that point was missed by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who tried to accuse us of being racist about squirrels. I have never heard such nonsense. I really think that he needs to go on an education tour in Cumbria to understand the importance of red squirrels and why they are so special to our nature.
The Minister may move on to this so I might be picking up unreasonably on a slip of the tongue, but she talked about the “eradication” of invasive species, no doubt in the context of our current inquiry on the Environmental Audit Committee. Will she suggest that we might find ways not just of controlling but of eradicating the grey squirrel?
I think that I used the word “elimination,” which is the same. I agree that has to be our target, rather than just control.
We have made sure that strict protections are in place for those species. Regulations are in place and we need to ensure that they are effectively enforced in England and Wales, as well as at the UK border and in the offshore marine area. Similar legislation is being prepared by the Scottish and Northern Ireland Governments.
The Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 requires us to put in place management measures for widely spread invasive species, including the grey squirrel, that have been risk-assessed and found to be highly damaging. Management measures must be aimed at the eradication, population control or containment of the species concerned. Under the order, releasing listed invasive species back into the environment will be prohibited unless it is part of further control efforts authorised by a licence, although that is effectively already domestic law.
Grey squirrels have attracted much attention. As I said in response to a recent petition, rescue centres may continue to rescue and treat grey squirrels; they are not obliged to kill grey squirrels, but they cannot release them into the wild without a licence. When the order comes into force in the coming months, it will bring England’s approach to controlling the release of grey squirrels into line with that of the devolved Administrations, who also acknowledge the impact of the species.
The population decline of red squirrels, a species that was once common in England, is of significant concern to the Government and we want to continue to find ways to address it. The Forestry Commission undertakes a number of actions to protect red squirrels from the impact of grey squirrels, as outlined in the grey squirrel action plan for England. DEFRA, in partnership with the UK Squirrel Accord, has provided funding for work by the Animal and Plant Health Agency to develop a fertility control method for grey squirrels. Although I am assured by officials that the research continues to show promise as a potentially effective and humane method of controlling grey squirrel numbers in the long term, I am conscious that it has been worked on for several years, and I do not want us to keep relying on it as the only way to tackle grey squirrel numbers.
On bolstering the populations of pine martens, I am conscious of what my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland said about the impact on red kittens. The pine marten is a natural predator of grey squirrels, and its reintroduction in places such as the Forest of Dean and Northumberland is expected to have an impact on grey squirrel populations in those areas, reducing their threat. Red squirrels co-evolved with pine martens, which they evade by scurrying to the tips of branches, where the larger pine martens cannot reach them. The greys do not know this trick and as a result are predated upon in higher numbers by pine martens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland also referred to felling licences. They simply authorise the felling of growing trees and do not absolve landowners of compliance with the legislation in place to protect wildlife, including red squirrels, as set out in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Forestry Commission considers whether to grant felling licences against the UK forestry standard, which covers the impact on biodiversity, including the habitat of red squirrels. The Forestry Commission checks all applications against a large number of records, including red squirrel reserves. That allows the Commission to highlight any potential issues and advise the applicant on how to avoid the disturbance or damage of protected species.
I am pleased to say that later this year there will be a consultation on an English tree strategy, which will provide the opportunity to consider the need for further strengthening of wildlife protections during forestry operations. In the preparation of the environment Bill, we are considering extra powers for the Forestry Commission in some regards, and there may still be an opportunity to consider clauses to strengthen those powers.
The environment improvement and recovery networks will be a key part of fulfilling the 25-year environment plan. One does not always need specific legislation targeting one species; as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) pointed out, it is important to have a holistic approach. Although we need to focus on our iconic native species and the elimination of invasive non-native species, it is absolutely right to take that wider approach. With the development of local nature improvement plans, more focus can be given to those iconic species in areas where they are particularly important, rather than having a one-size-fits-all plan.
One of the best places in Scotland to spot red squirrels is Montreathmont forest, just outside Forfar in my constituency. A number of years ago, an application for a wind farm in the forest received widespread opposition from locals and organisations because the forest was registered as such a significant habitat for wildlife, including red squirrels. Will the Minister join me in celebrating those local people who invested a huge amount of their time to ensure that wildlife sightings continued to be registered? We must ensure that planning applications are in the right spaces so that we do not destroy those habitats.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that important point, and I recognise the importance of what is now called “citizen science” in ensuring that data is available to local authorities and Governments, to inform policy and decision making so that policies are properly implemented.
There has been a lot of discussion about trees. In the wider discussion about biodiversity, it is important to remember that habitat degradation is one of the major reasons for the global biodiversity challenge. On the kinds of trees that we have, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight spoke specifically about the need to plant more broadleaves, but we actually need a balanced biodiversity and a balanced tree strategy to take that forward. Both conifers and broadleaves will work for red squirrel habitats but, as has been pointed out, they thrive mostly in areas where there are conifers. Largely, greys do less well there, because there are not the same kinds of nutrients as in broadleaf woodland, so there is less competition for the reds.
It is important to recognise the multi-purpose of trees. As we have discussed many times in this Chamber, the right tree in the right place offers multiple benefits, whether for flood situations, for habitats, for protection from heat in urban areas and for all sorts of other things, as well as being a general force for good. The hon. Member for Workington mentioned the 10% woodland coverage in Cumbria, and I agree that Cumbria is absolutely under-forested. A year last December, I too planted a tree up in Cumbria—I cannot recall the constituency, but it was on the Lowther estate—in what is one of the largest such developments, alongside Doddington moor on the other side of the country. I encourage my hon. Friends from Cumbria to speak to the national park authority about what it will do to encourage the planting of more woodlands and forests, because that can make a difference.
Countryside stewardship schemes will support landowners who want to develop habitats specifically for species such as the red squirrel. As we develop the design of the environmental land management scheme for when we leave the European Union, it will in effect turn the existing common agricultural policy on its head so that we pay for public benefits. Those schemes will attract more and more attention from landowners, rather than them just considering commercial forestry.
In Cumbria, the first forestry investment zone, or FIZ, is a small test of that, but what else are the Government doing to encourage such activity? As I said, the challenge for landowners is the active support of the Forestry Commission to make something happen.
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), is now responsible for domestic forestry and the Forestry Commission, so I no longer have day-to-day contact in that regard. I hope that the tree strategy will be a way to make progress.
I suggest that some of the biggest forest and woodland planning applications had particular issues. We have to balance compliance with the habitats directive and the different assessments that have to be made, and I know how expensive those can be. Applications for financial support from the Government need to ensure that they are not only absolutely compliant with UK forestry standards, but taking wider environmental regulations into account. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), however, that lessons could have been learned from some of those major applications, and I hope that they will be for future developments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland asked why the Forestry Commission does not allow more shooting. Shooting, or culling, of grey squirrels is an important driver in their elimination. The Forestry Commission has asked me to point out that it has responsibility for public access and public safety on its estate. However—I will be open about this—I do not think that the commission does a very good job of tackling non-native invasive species. We have the wild boar problem down in the Forest of Dean, and other such problems across the country. I would like to see a more proactive approach, such as the deer initiative, in which people who are not Forestry Commission employees work in partnership to tackle the deer problem. I would like to see more of that happen with some other non-native species.
In speaking about other elements of the issue, many hon. Members paid tribute to the important role played by volunteers in the protection of our domestic red squirrel populations. As they said, a variety of charities up in Cumbria raise public awareness of the threats to red squirrels, engage directly with local landowners, and created a citizen science system in which members of the public record red and grey squirrel sightings. Pockets of improvement could happen elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight talked about the nature networks and the woodland and habitat links in his constituency. I see that as something we could take forward in the environmental improvement plans that we expect across the country.
As for grey squirrels being a carrier of pox, I have already tried to address some things, such as dealing with grey squirrel procreation success—I think that is the best way of putting it. We also have to be open about this: for red squirrels to survive for the next 500 years —although none of us will be alive then to keep that guarantee to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire—we must significantly or entirely reduce the threat from the grey squirrel and its diseases. We must also ensure that any future introductions of species align with international guidelines. Such threats have to be tackled head on.
I have already referred to the fact that landowners, if they wish to do more and possibly designate reserves, may apply for countryside stewardship scheme funding. That is open to them. Many different challenges will of course continue but, in response to other questions about funding, it is available. Natural England still funds a variety of activities such as species recovery programmes, which are very much alive. There is also what we will do with the shared prosperity fund. The choices about future funding in Wales are a decision for the Welsh Government, but certainly the environmental land management scheme will be a real opportunity for farmers and landowners to consider carefully where, in the right place, we can continue to invest significantly in a species.
In conclusion, the passion to protect our red squirrels touches many right hon. and hon. Members. It is important to keep our focus on ensuring that iconic native species, whether fauna or flora, remain important in the future. That is a key part of our 25-year environment plan. I am confident that some of the measures in the forthcoming environment Bill will help, but equally important is direct action through the nature improvement and recovery networks that we will establish.
Thank you, Sir David. It has been a pleasure to serve under you today. I thank the Minister for her robust response. I am pleased that she agrees that the Forestry Commission could do more. In answer to the point about public safety, of course that is a paramount consideration, but when the shooting of wood pigeon, pheasant and deer already happens, I fail to see the argument against considering similar controls, under licence, of the grey squirrel.
I thank the many Members who have made speeches and interventions. We have a real consensus. The hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) referenced the importance of tourism. The Lake District national park, where my constituency is, has 18 million visitors, and so many of them come to see and appreciate our wildlife, which is perilously in danger of extinction. I think of the hedgehogs—Mrs Tiggy-Winkle—or the Kewick hatchery project that I am involved with to ensure that we still have salmon and sea trout in the rivers of Cumbria. We learned the awful fact that the Formby stronghold has lost 85% of its red squirrels. I am pleased that they are making some recovery, although there has been the recent outbreak of squirrel pox.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) had told me her enchanting story in the Tea Room, but just think that some time ago books about red squirrels referred to them simply as “squirrels” because that is all we had in the British Isles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) for looking after and promoting his stronghold. It was the best tourism advert—I am really looking forward to a trip to the Isle of Wight.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) and from the hon. Members for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) and for Workington (Sue Hayman)—how lucky is the hon. Member for Workington to have red squirrels adorning feed tables in her own garden. I commend her husband for looking after our wonderful native reds. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) referred to the importance of a holistic ecosystem approach. I talked about the salmon and sea trout, but we also worry about the pearl mussel in our area, which needs to lay its eggs in the gills of a salmonoid—so without the salmon and the sea trout, the pearl mussel would also suffer.
I am pleased to hear from the Minister that the consultation on further strengthening forestry protection will indeed happen, and I encourage all Members across the House to urge their conservation groups to get involved. Thank you, Sir David, for paying attention to us speaking about such an urgent issue, and for allowing me to speak in the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered potential red squirrel extinction.