Not all introductions are a disaster. The Little Owl was first introduced into the wild by the fourth Lord Lilford at his Lilford Hall estate near Oundle in Northamptonshire in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It is, as its name suggests, a diminutive fellow, perhaps ten inches in length and specialises in small reptiles and amphibians, insects, beetles and earthworms.
I first saw them perhaps 2¼ miles from Lilford Hall nearly forty years ago: a family of four just about to fly the nest that I like to think were the direct descendants of some of Lord Lilford’s initial releases. The Little Owl does absolutely no harm to anyone and is a perfectly acceptable addition to our countryside.
Other introductions are not so happy. The Japanese Knotweed is one such, having proved to be deeply damaging to the environment and extremely difficult to eradicate. The Giant Hogweed gives off a substance which can cause serious skin problems and is also highly invasive. So problematic is it that criminal sanctions attach to its planting or release as they do for Japanese Knotweed.
The Grey Squirrel is attracting quite a bit of attention at present and rightly so. Introduced, as were so many rogue species, in the mid-nineteenth century, it has become a menace. The Indictment against it is a long one.
It is often found in people’s gardens. Some people think it a cute cuddly thing and it is routinely anthropomorphised in literature and nature programmes of the bunny-hugger tendency. But even in the garden it is a menace. It is an aggressive pirate of the bird-feeding table and will cheerfully accept every last grain of food intended for more deserving garden birds.
But it is out in the country that it really causes problems. In woodland it causes enormous economic damage through its habit of stripping the bark of small and mature trees (see left) which either kills the tree or seriously stunts their growth rendering them unfit for economic harvesting. As a result the Forestry Commission and others are developing extensive management programmes. This inevitably involves a degree of culling, though given the proclivity of bunny-huggers to froth at the mouth if anything small and fury is to be exterminated, they keep a pretty low profile on the subject.
Secondly the Grey is believed to be responsible in part for the decline of many of our forest-dwelling birds whose nests it is wont to raid in the breeding season. Given the decline in such populations, which may have other causes as well, this is also a matter which the reduction of the grey’s population would help reverse.
The Grey Squirrel is also doing another grave disservice to our native flora and fauna. It has the pox. Or more specifically it has the squirrelpox virus which may once have been lethal to them but to which it is now plainly immune. But the native red squirrel is not immune to it and where populations of the grey come up against the range of the red, the reds succumb and the greys move swiftly on into the territory formerly the domain of the red. The result has been the complete demise from England of the native red squirrel (which is smaller and infinitely cuter than the grey, if one has to see it in such terms) save for a population in the Lake District which is now sorely pressed by the relentless advance of the greys.
Although the Forestry Commission and DEFRA have a management policy for the grey squirrel, it is, in the face of the bunny-hugger tendency, far too timid.
Two possible schemes suggest themselves. One is to offer a bounty on the grey by which a sum of money would be paid for each one trapped, shot or otherwise brought to book. This scheme would be extremely easy to set up as it would require fairly minimal management. Some might jib at the cost involved but when set against the economic cost of the damage caused (see picture left) to our managed forestry, it would pay for itself handsomely in a few years.
The second scheme which has been suggested involves a spin-off benefit which would have the effect of restoring the population of another of our native mammals at the same time. This is the Pine Marten which in the nineteenth and twentieth century suffered grievous persecution at the hands of gamekeepers on shooting estates. Now experts believe it could be worthwhile reintroducing the Pine Marten to areas from which it has been driven by such persecution so that it too can play its part in reducing the greys.
At the moment this is just an idea, but if it were carried through it would be worth making this a nationwide exercise. All true countrymen would welcome the return of a native species such as the Pine Marten, even if the latter does also have a partiality to the odd pheasant or partridge: shooting, of course, is just as much an economic activity as forestry, but those of us who shoot and are genuinely committed to the idea of shooting playing its part in conservation will hardly begrudge a few birds if this brought back the Pine marten in due course and in its wake enable the red squirrel to recover its former ranges in England. Gamekeepers, one is sure, may see it otherwise.
One MP who is behind this is none other than David Maclean, former Tory chief whip and MP for Penrith and the Border, who has featured more than once on this blog (not least for his attempt to have Parliament conceal details of MPs expenses). Clearly he is making an effort to get back into our good books. Backing the Red Squirrel and the Pine Marten in one go is no bad way to go about it.