For a so-called nation of animal lovers, we – or at least our government – really don’t seem to like Grey Squirrels. Reds yes, but Greys no.
While many people love seeing squirrels no matter what colour they are, others just can’t bear them. Chris Packham has suggested that the Grey Squirrel is the UK’s “most unpopular non-native invader” but do we really dislike them that much? Or are we actually being educated to dislike them against our better nature – are they really ‘vermin’, ‘pests’, ‘tree rats’?
Other introductions to Britain include the Brown Hare, Rabbit, Fallow Deer, Red-legged Partridge and of course the Pheasant (40 million of the latter are released into the countryside EVERY year) – none of them are strictly ‘British’ either (and of course all were introduced to eat, hunt, or shoot) – but we don’t seem to have quite the same problems with them.
Much of the rhetoric around Greys revolves around the fact that they’re squeezing out Red Squirrels – but we actually have a remarkably chequered attitude to Reds as well, exterminating them across most of their range by the end of the 19th century. Opponents also say that Greys damage trees. True, but not anywhere near as many as we damage/cut down through building transport and housing infrastructure, of course.
Whatever the double standards being operated here, the fact is that in the eyes of the law the Grey Squirrel is an invasive species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act which means that it is illegal to release one into the wild except under licence or allow it to escape after capture.
And now the law is really getting tough on them. Under a piece of legislation called – fittingly perhaps for a Brexit-era UK – the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 it will be illegal to release squirrels that have been taken into care (something previously allowed under licence). Originally planned to come into force in March this year, the government has decided to delay implementation of the Order until the autumn…
What does all of this mean on the ground, though, to rescuers and carers, to vets, to the welfare of Grey Squirrels themselves (and they are sentient animals whatever your personal opinion of them might be)?
I went to the amazing Secret World Wildlife Rescue in Somerset to talk with its founder, Pauline Kidner, about how she thinks the new Order will impact squirrels, how it will impact her and the staff at Secret World and how it reflects a wider disconnect with wild animals and their welfare…
I began though by asking Pauline to explain what the current law allows and how it’s changing….
I’m heading south later today to talk with Pauline Kidner, founder of Secret World Animal Rescue, about how a very specific change in the law will impact how carers/rescuers will be able to treat and release Grey Squirrels.
Not worth the bother?
The Grey Squirrel is one of the most maligned mammals in the UK, and heavily subject to ‘value-based language’ – it’s an ‘alien’, a ‘non-native’, it’s ‘vermin’. Greys are blamed for wiping out Red Squirrels, but we virtually exterminated the Red Squirrel throughout the UK ourselves in previous centuries and have reintroduced huge numbers of ‘non-native’ Reds from Europe. The forestry industry blames Greys for destroying trees, but it is us that has cut down vast areas of forest, and it is us that still devastate ancient forests to build housing and transport infrastructure.
And what about the impact on carers themselves – torn between taking in sick or injured animals but knowing it would be illegal to ever let them go again, even in areas where Reds have not been seen for hundreds of years?
As always, these stories are never as simple as they might seem…
EDIT: So I went to Secret World (with my daughter Evie) to do the podcast. I didn’t want to get in the way (everyone at Secret World is SO hard working) so half-expected to be in and out in under an hour. But Pauline took us on a guided tour, talked about the animals in her care, sat down with both of us for a cuppa in her kitchen, and then did the interview. What a genuinely lovely, lovely person.
“We give communities the tools and empowerment needed to turn opposition to grouse shooting into results.”
Earlier this month I met up with Luke Steele, spokesperson for Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors.
Ban Bloodsport’s say on their website at stoptheshoot.com that their mission is “to end grouse shooting on Yorkshire’s moors, to free the way for these spaces to be managed in a way where their full potential can be reached. Through solid research, pro-active educational initiatives, investigations and legal advocacy. By educating the public and policy-makers about wildlife and the environment, we motivate them to support upland conservation.”
When the group was first launched I thought, “Well, here’s a group that does exactly what it says on the tin”. I was less sure about how they would go about it though. The grouse shooting industry is well-funded, after all, it has an army of lobbyists, and the phrase the ‘glorious 12th’ – the day the guns start blowing Red Grouse out of the moorland skies – is so ‘normalised’ most media platforms use it without even thinking about what it actually means (and more shame them for that).
Well, it turns out it’s not simple, but not incredibly difficult either…according to Luke anyway. It’s all about working with local communities and local businesses – especially local businesses like Yorkshire Water and NG Bailey who actually own the moorland that the shooters operate from and who are now questioning just what grouse shooting does for them and their reputations…
So, what might you get if a birder from a suburb in Norway who grew up loving dinosaurs went to architect school then figured he would move to a run-down fishing community about as far north in Norway as you can get without living in an ice-cave where he would introduce eco-tourism and design bird hides fit for the 21st century?
You’d get Biotope “the worlds first and only architectural office with special expertise on birds and birdwatching. We engage in pro nature projects. We design birdhides, shelters, nature trails, outdoor amphitheaters and much more. We make destination development studies, exhibitions and arrange workshops. We develop new concepts for experiencing nature and wildlife.”
I first met Tormod, the founder of Biotope, at the British Birdfair. I’d just started podcasting (so this was just a few years after he’d moved to Vardo on the Varanger Peninsula to start the company), and there was some discussion about ‘recording something about something or other’ (as there often is), but it went no further.
No further until, that is, Tormod emailed a few days ago, adding an update to an email thread dating back to 2016! (It can take a while to organise these podcasts, but rarely this long…). He was, he wrote, on a quick tour of the UK after opening Biotope’s first UK offices in York, could we meet up?
I’m sure we could co-ordinate I said and a quick check of the diaries (or in my case the post-it note stuck to my laptop) showed that we could both be at Slimbridge (HQ of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) on the same day. Tormod was giving a talk there, I live within an hour – the stars had aligned at last…
Which is why this morning I was at Slimbridge interviewing Tormod for a podcast. And what an entertaining, self-effacing, funny, and inspiring guy he is. One of those conservationists that just makes huge sense. He also has a natural sense of storytelling (in English, I should add – imagine what we’d be missing out on if everyone else had such a lazy approach to learning languages as we do here in the UK…).
Tormod went straight from talking with me for more than an hour to giving the talk I mentioned earlier. It was kind of like the interview, only with slides. And what slides they were. Photographs from another world, with close-ups of seabirds (including the drop-dead male Steller’s Eider above) and a singing Bluethroat that was clearly flying overhead almost within touching distance. And of course the designs for shelters/hides his firm is becoming so renowned for…
I took a few ‘live’ photos on my phone, which aren’t great – but if you don’t want to go to Varanger after seeing them you’re a) not a birder, b) not curious, or c) possibly no longer alive…
Anyhow, Tormod was on his way back to Norway almost before the projector bulb had cooled down, and I’ll be starting editing our chat asap. If it’s even half as good as it sounded to me at the time, you’ll love it .
Campaigning to end grouse shooting on Yorkshire’s moors.
We believe Yorkshire’s moors are the jewel in our region’s crown and must be preserved in a way beneficial to wildlife, education, its users and the local economy. They are a unique environment for taking leisure among nature which provides investment for the region.
Our vision seeks a regional resource that promotes biodiversity and teaches younger generations the importance of nature conservation. An asset which helps grow the local economy. A healthy ecosystem which is able to meet the challenges climate change is placing on the region, including by mitigating the flood risk which threatens businesses and livelihoods.
Our mission is to end grouse shooting on Yorkshire’s moors, to free the way for these spaces to be managed in a way where their full potential can be reached. Through solid research, pro-active educational initiatives, investigations and legal advocacy. By educating the public and policy-makers about wildlife and the environment, we motivate them to support upland conservation.
Luke himself is a very interesting (and controversial – google him and you’ll find out why) man. I first met him at a League Against Cruel Sports event some years ago. Clean-cut and dressed head to toe in tweed (unlike most of us t-shirted and denimed League supporters), I was convinced he had to be connected with a shooting estate or represented gamekeepers.
Not so, of course. And while he (like most of us t-shirted etc etc) has his detractors (stand up for something, someone will want to shoot you down) he has honed his skills over the last few years and become an extremely effective campaigner.
I last saw him in full flight last August, when I was invited to record a podcast at a joint BBYM/League Against Cruel Sports event in Hebden Bridge.
“Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors and the League Against Cruel Sports held a joint protest in the Calder Valley market town of Hebden Bridge to urge Yorkshire Water to stop leasing moorland for the controversial ‘sport’ of grouse shooting.
[I] met with the speakers at the Hebden Bridge event to discuss why the event was targeting the utility company and the impact of grouse shooting on the local area and its wildlife. In the following interview you will hear from Luke Steele, of Ban Bloodsports on Yorkshire’s Moors; Ros, a local naturalist and campaigner; Nick Weston, Head of Campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports; and Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the Badger Trust and Policy Advisor at Born Free Foundation.”
Have a listen. Everything we said in that podcast is still entirely relevant of course…
Back to tomorrow and meeting up with Luke.
We’ve arranged to meet on the back of BBYM sending out a press-release announcing that grouse shooting would end on Denton Moor (near Harrogate, North Yorkshire). The landowner, engineering firm NG Bailey, is set to launch a review into the future of grouse shooting on Denton Moor as “part of a wider drive to increase environmental conservation within the grounds of its headquarters near Ilkley“.
I have a number of questions for Luke. N G Bailey is looking at its shooting lease because of a number of wildlife crimes on the moor, which they have condemned as “totally unacceptable” and “not reflective of the company’s values or ethical practices”. Does a ‘review’ necessarily mean the end of grouse shooting, though, or just the awarding of the shooting lease to different tenants? What might N G Bailey do with the land instead? What is the long-term future for Yorkshire’s blighted, scarred landscapes, and will the literally thousands and thousands of traps hidden away in gullies, walls, and alongside streams ever be removed – for good?
It may be that Luke doesn’t have the answers to all of that – the future is always difficult to predict and ‘greenwashing’ is all too common (unless you were in the meeting when the decision was taken, how can anyone be sure what the genuine reasons behind losing the money that shooting brings in might be).
Whether Luke can answer those questions won’t take away for a moment that there is huge pressure on companies to change the way land is used in Yorkshire, or that Luke Steele is one of the key figures in seeing that change take place.
I’m looking forward to catching up with him, and – assuming all goes well – hope to have the podcast uo on Lush Player by the end of the week.