POLL: Should the Wildlife Trust’s campaign to slaughter grey squirrels be stopped?

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An army of 5,000 volunteers is being sought to save the from extinction by monitoring populations, educating children – and bludgeoning grey squirrels to death.

The Wildlife Trusts’ biggest-ever recruitment drive is focused on areas of northern England, north Wales and Northern Ireland where invasive grey squirrels first introduced by the Victorians are driving the retreating red squirrel population to extinction.

More than 2.5 million grey squirrels are continuing to spread north through England and into Scotland, out-competing the 140,000 remaining red squirrels and spreading the squirrelpox virus, which does not affect greys but rapidly kills reds.

in St James’s Park, London – Photo by Diliff

“In most of the UK there are only a handful of refuges left for red squirrels,” said Dr Cathleen Thomas, programme manager of Red Squirrel United, a conservation partnership started in 2015. “Without help, experts predict this beautiful and treasured creature could be extinct within as little as 35 years.”

Volunteers for Red Squirrel United will be asked to monitor red squirrel strongholds in Northumberland, Merseyside, Wales and Northern Ireland, and report any grey squirrels entering these areas. Volunteers will set up camera traps to film squirrel behaviour and teach the public and school children about the way in which greys have rapidly driven the reds to extinction across southern Britain since 1945.

Red and grey squirrel distribution in the British Isles in 1945 and 2010. Photograph: Craig Shuttleworth/RSST

Supported by Heritage Lottery and EU Life funding, volunteers can also undertake training to trap and kill grey squirrels, which are caught in a cage-trap, put in a bag and knocked over the head.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and we don’t expect people to do it if they are not comfortable but we do have volunteers who carry out the dispatch themselves,” said Thomas. “We don’t just say ‘do it how you like’ – we have very strict animal welfare guidelines. Nobody does it happily but it’s one or the other [reds or greys] and we’re in a position where we have to decide.”

is controversial but scientific monitoring shows that reds swiftly recolonise areas cleared of greys. There were fewer than 40 red squirrels left on Anglesey in 1997 but a successful drive to eradicate all grey squirrels on the island by 2015 has seen the red squirrel population bounce back to 700 today.

Thomas added: “We do get animal rights activists saying we shouldn’t kill anything because all living creatures have a right to life and to some extent I agree but if we don’t do anything the reds will go extinct and in quite a horrific way. Given that the greys were brought over here by humans, it’s something we have to make a conscious decision about.”

A red squirrel eating berries on the Isle of Wight – one of a few refuges left for red squirrels in the UK. Photograph: Paul Blackley/Alamy

Julie Bailey, who lives in Cumbria’s Eden Valley, used to watch dozens of red squirrels at her garden feeders. A grey squirrel arrived in Christmas 2009 and within a month all her reds had died of squirrelpox virus. “It was absolutely devastating,” she said.

She began volunteering for local red squirrel groups – there are 14 such community groups in Cumbria alone – recording red squirrels, and trapping and greys.

“Pulling the trigger on grey squirrels was difficult if I’m honest because I’d never actually killed anything like that before,” said Bailey. “But because we’ve been culling the greys we’ve managed to get the reds back and they are still hanging on.” Despite three outbreaks of squirrelpox, Bailey now has six to eight red squirrels in her neighbourhood.

“It is a winnable war but not without boots on the ground,” she added. “We have some fantastic conservation projects but if we haven’t got someone sitting under that tree or checking that trap we’re at a loss.

“It’s an unfortunate part of red squirrel conservation that we have to kill grey squirrels. But we have an obligation to undo the damage the Victorians did by bringing them here in the first place.”

This article was first published by The Guardian on 24 Feb 2017.

We invite you to share your opinion whether the Wildlife Trust’s campaign to grey squirrels be stopped? Please vote and leave your comments at the bottom of this page.

Should the Wildlife Trust's campaign to slaughter grey squirrels be stopped?

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Peter Matthew

Simon Tucker , Let’s start from the beginning, do you know how many SQPV cases there were in the UK in the last 20 years?

Sarah Elizabeth

Extinction is the problem here. The grey squirrel is spreading disease which is killing the red squirrel, driving them to extinction. Something has to be done to save the reds.


Let’s start from the beginning, do you know how many SQPV cases there were in the UK in the last 20 years?

Ama Menec

I saw a programe on TV a while back about the reintroduction of the Pine Marten to parts of Wales, with the intent to use them to control the Grey Squirrel populations. My understanding is the red and the grey squirrels feed differently, the reds at the ends of the branches and the greys more often on or nearer the ground. The reds being light and lithe can stay out of the reach of the pine martens but the greys being slower and keener to feed lower down are much easier to catch. It was mentioned the pine martens had… Read more »

Paula Kaiser

What is happening. Why all the killing of beautiful animals. When everything is extinct what then.

Angel Michaels

Beautiful… !!!

Susan Schofield
Susan Schofield

the Grey squirrel does not show the same symptoms as the red squirrel with the pox virus It is spread through body fluids the grey does not get the sores or fluid running from his eyes The red has his food supplements given in feeders by man as with the forests being cut down the red does not have the right environment So every time the red takes from the feeder if its infected with the pox virus it is passing it on to others The grey has every right to be here Reds have been introduced to England and… Read more »

Jane Cureton

The Wildlife Trust should not be encouraging people to kill any wildlife species. This is totally disgusting especially when it will not help the reds.

DeborahMae Broad

Why would squirrels be killed?

Jennifer Wilkes

Isn’t there a grey squirrel hunting season in the U.K.?

Megan Wood


Rosette Putzeys


Simon Tucker

Clearly there are a whole bunch of people posting on here who have investigated the effect of squirrel pox on Reds and concluded that they are immune: either that or they are completely ignorant of the subject and too ignorant to recognise that they are ignorant. Habitat loss is always an issue with wildlife but, since humans stopped slaughtering Red Squirrels, they have stabilised locally in suitable habitats – until the Greys arrive and spread their pox around. The cull of Grey Squirrels is a Europe-wide initiative, as the rest of Europe is also suffering from the impact of this… Read more »

Natalia Doran

The reds are, actually, slowly developing immunity to the pox virus. But the main point it, the reds do not get the pox from the greys, but from fellow reds. In the majority of areas where the disease first broke out in this country there were no grey squirrels at all. At present feeding stations in areas where red squirrels are artificially maintained are responsible for the spread of squirrelpox: the dead bodies are found near the feeders, not near the borders with higher grey population. Feeders spread leprosy as well, in areas where there no grey squirrels. As for… Read more »

Peter Matthew

Simon, The most recent – and biggest so far – studies conducted by two independent teams of British scientists about a potential influence of squirrels (grey squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis) on birds populations showed that grey squirrels don’t have significant effect on birds populations in the UK (Newson et al. 2009) and often their presence was positively linked with diversity and density of the birds most vulnerable to predation (Bonnington et al. 2014). Bonnington, C., Gaston, K.J. & Evans, K.L. (2014) Relative Roles of Grey Squirrels, Supplementary Feeding, and Habitat in Shaping Urban Bird Assemblages. PLoS ONE, 9: 1 Newson, S.E.,… Read more »

Peter Matthew

PS. Some scientific research and papers suggest that high density of red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) populations living in Europe can have locally a serious negative effect on reproduction success (a few-fold decrease in reproduction rates) of some bird species (Tomialojc in.litt.*, Hewson & Fuller 2003). In other study the researchers tried to support this hypothesis* with an experiment proving that locally red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) can be one of the main (responsible for about 15%) “bird egg predators” (Nour et al. 1993). Nour, N., Matthysen, E. & Dhondt, A.A. (1993) Artificial nest predation and habitat fragmentation: different trends in bird… Read more »

Simon Tucker

Peter Matthew But those are natural population limiting effects.

Simon Tucker

Natalia Doran That is a nonsensical position. The whole point is that squirrel pox / parapox virus is unknown in Red Squirrel populations where there are no Greys in the country. Parapox virus antibodies are only found in Grey Squirrel populations, because many are immune to it and develop the antibodies. If it gets into a Red population very few have any defence and so it passes from one to the other to the other in epidemic proportions. It takes one infected Grey to set in train the events that can wipe out a whole population of Reds.

Ian Robinson

Absolutely. There are numerous human examples where the spread of Europeans into other parts of the globe led to the spread of diseases like the common cold which devastated indigenous populations in the Americas and South Pacific. Squirrel pox is exactly the same issue. Another current issue with Grey Squirrel is the near dearth of predators over most of lowland Britain. To my mind getting Pine Marten re-established in the New Forest and East Dorset would be enormously beneficial. It would go a long way towards safeguarding the future of Red Squirrel on the Isle of Wight and on the… Read more »

Marilyn Flynn


Julie Zickefoose

Once again, I’m bamboozled by the tone you take. In this post, you use incendiary language (slaughter and bludgeon) to state your obvious position that managing gray squirrel populations to benefit native reds is just too mean and cruel. So yay! you get lots of comments, most of them the “all life is sacred” conditioned response to your incendiary language (slaughter and bludgeon) from people who make no distinction between which wildlife belongs in a given ecosystem and which doesn’t. Who just love all the little animals. To whom a squirrel is a squirrel and they’re all so cute and… Read more »

Natalia Doran

There are many reasons to oppose this awful volunteer drive. The argument from cruelty is valid, even though there are other lines of argument that can and are beging taken.


You need to stop blaming the gray squirrels! I’d say it is because their habitat is being taken away little by little – . I think it is awful that you are rounding up 5000 volunteers to shoot the innocent gray squirrels and it should be stopped – People who think it is OK to kill like this frustrate me -These are the same people who teach their kids to go out and shoot any living animal for target practice –


Why not try T-N-R instead? It works with stray cats and dogs. I don’t like the idea of culls on any animal and living in a country with only red squirrels (which are just as clever and destructive!) there is little difference between the two except for size. Be happy – keep them both!

ms mcivor
ms mcivor

Absolutely appalled at the thought of volunteers going around willingly taking the life of an animal. They say it’s also to educate children!! what!!!…we have enough animal abusers in the world, without recruiting more.
what kind of people are you to volunteer for such barbaric behaviour & what kind of parents want their children to be taught to love one animal but hate another???
stop killing Grey Squirrels, this has to stop!!

Natalia Doran

Red squirrel numbers crashed to near extinction at the end of the 18th century, before the grey squirrels were introduced – because of habitat loss. The reds enjoyed a comeback in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when hazel coppicing was a widespread economic practice. However, when hazel coppicing stopped, the reds could not adapt to other habitats, and their numbers crashed again. They greys should not be blamed, let alone so brutally killed.

Simon Tucker

That’s why the stronghold for the Red Squirrel is basically conifer forests, because they are dependent on hazel coppice. Ignorance is bliss: but spreading it as though it is truth is pernicious.

Natalia Doran

Simon Tucker Of course they need extensive pine forests in order to thrive, and it is the destruction of those that caused their near-extinction at the end of the 18th century, before the greys came on the scene. But the reds managed to adapt supported by hazel-coppicing, to such an extent that it was the reds who were considered a “pest”, with huntng clubs set up to destroy them, in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Jean O'Donovan

l find this such a sad situation, it is not the grey squirrels fault, yet the Red squirrel is Britain’s own. l do believe we have been instrumental in loosing their habitat like so many other animals worldwide. Is there no way a vaccine could be produced for squirrel-pox. Here in Spain they had a serious problem many years ago where myxomatosis wiped out almost all of the rabbit population, this was a major problem as some 40 odd mammals relied on them for their food chain, Very fortunately they developed a vaccine that they injected into a few rabbits… Read more »

Eugene Rae

There must be room for both squirrels. The idea of licensing volunteers to kill wildlife is crazy. Only sadistic nutters need apply!

Simon Tucker

Plenty of room: Greys in America, Reds in Europe

Natalia Doran

Simon Tucker We should not bring in alien species. But neither should we bludgeon the ones that are already established here. Introducing the grey squirrel in the UK is rightly considered unacceptable interference with nature.But correcting it with more inteference, this time round cruel intereference, is not the answer. Nature should be left to do its own thing, it is entirely capable of doing that without our help.

Peter Matthew

” Regardless whether the studies were conducted in big woodland areas with “low level of urbanisation” (Shuttleworth 2001) or they included areas “more urbanised” (Dutton 2004, Simpson et al. 2013) the main cause (even up to 94%) of unnatural deaths in red squirrel population in the UK was human activity. ” http://i-csrs.com/red-squirrels-decline-0 Dutton, C. (2004) The Red Squirrel. Redressing the Wrong. Report to the European Squirrel Initiative LaRose, J.P., Meredith, A.L., Everest, D.J., Fiegna, C., McInnes, C.J., Shaw, D.J. & Milne, E.M. (2010) Epidemiological and postmortem findings in 262 red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) in Scotland, 2005 to 2009. Veterinary Record… Read more »

Peter Matthew

” Regardless whether the studies were conducted in big woodland areas with “low level of urbanisation” (Shuttleworth 2001) or they included areas “more urbanised” (Dutton 2004, Simpson et al. 2013) the main cause (even up to 94%) of unnatural deaths in red squirrel population in the UK was human activity. ” http://i-csrs.com/red-squirrels-decline-0 Dutton, C. (2004) The Red Squirrel. Redressing the Wrong. Report to the European Squirrel Initiative LaRose, J.P., Meredith, A.L., Everest, D.J., Fiegna, C., McInnes, C.J., Shaw, D.J. & Milne, E.M. (2010) Epidemiological and postmortem findings in 262 red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) in Scotland, 2005 to 2009. Veterinary Record… Read more »

Benjamin Aitken

We always look for a scapegoat its habitat loss not the grey squirrel to blame and guess who steals their habitats protect them all focus on the real problems

Sue Lesmond

I am disgusted with no votes.These people who voted no are not animal advocates.They disgust me.I support ALL ie 100% of animals.

Judy Rees


Paula Zerzan

Is it not possible to re-locate grey squirrels to habitats where they are native?

Sarah Elizabeth

Interesting, the over protection of the grey squirrel is pushing the red squirrel to extinction. This is very sad but it definitely sounds like the grey squirrels need to go, as quickly/humanely as possible, as they (from how I’m understanding the article) aren’t native to those lands.


In the last 150 years for this reason red squirrels had to be introduced in various areas in the UK from the continent – mostly from Sweden and central Europe (Ritchie 1920, Lowe & Gardiner 1983, Yalden 1999, Hale et al. 2004, Harris et al. 2006). It led to the situation – as confirmed by DNA study (Hale et al. 2004) – that the vast majority of red squirrel population currently living in the UK are descendants of squirrels recently introduced from Scandinavia – often long after the introduction of grey squirrels to the UK (Hale et al. 2004, Harris… Read more »

Sharmistha Moonmoon Chakraborty

Soooo nice

Jim Zach