HL Deb 25 March 1998 vol 587 cc1316-30

8.58 p.m.

Lord Inglewood rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure the survival of the native red squirrel in the wild in Great Britain, and what is their estimate of the chances of success.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I must begin by explaining to the House that my home is in Cumbria where the red squirrel still survives. Most mornings when we draw the curtains of our bedroom we can see them playing in the trees outside the window.

I know that the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, would very much have liked to be here tonight for the debate but finds that he is unable to come down from the north. He and the late Lord Carlisle were among the founders of initiatives taken in the north to try to save the red squirrel.

Your Lordships will know that the red squirrel is one of 38 native mammals and one of the most loved. Indeed, in the personification of Squirrel Nutkin, it is almost the icon of the Lake District. During the past 40 years that much loved creature has been in clear and consistent decline, driven out of its home by the grey squirrel which was introduced into private menageries in the 19th century and then escaped.

Without very special management, the creature cannot co-exist and it is my personal opinion that in the longer term it cannot co-exist at all. For a number of years there was co-existence in the Cannock Chase area of Staffordshire but recently it has been concluded that the red has become extinct. It would be rash to the point of negligence to assume that long-term co-existence in a shared habitat is possible.

Since 1959, the red squirrel has been driven out of the West Country, most of Wales, most of East Anglia, and almost all of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands. Easily the largest surviving populations are in Cumbria and Northumbria. The tide is surely and remorselessly moving onwards, slowly driving the lovely creature into extinction in England.

Your Lordships will know that faced with those threats, conservationists, governments and other interested parties, including NPI, which has provided a significant amount of money to help, have not been idly standing by. Working together in partnership, they have tried to turn the.. tide but have succeeded only in stemming it.

The scientific and public policy basis for what they have been doing is found in the red squirrel UK diversity action plan and in the Joint Nature Conservation Committee's red squirrel strategy. The implementation of those policies is co-ordinated through the United Kingdom red squirrel steering group. In the north west of England, it is the north west "Red Alert" which is driving forward the work. The "Red Alert" is a partnership sponsored by the private and public sector together. It focuses on a five-element strategy. First, it seeks to try to ensure that habitats favourable to the red as opposed to the grey are encouraged. I should like to ask the noble Baroness whether the Government will consider introducing an element into the woodland and forestry grant schemes in this country to ensure that that priority is recognised and encouraged.

Secondly, where appropriate, supplementary feeding takes place, although that is clearly a matter of fire fighting when particular reds are under threat. Thirdly, it seeks to provide grey squirrel control but because poisoning. which is the most efficient way of dealing with them, is not currently allowed in red squirrel areas, various forms of labour-intensive shooting or trapping have to take place which limits its effectiveness. In that context, I ask the Minister what is happening as regards the work being done at Sheffield University to develop immuno-contraception.

Fourthly. it is important that the public relations or education aspects of the danger are continuously emphasised. All sorts of things have been done to try to give it a higher profile, not least a raft race on Derwent Water in which I and my noble friends Lord Henley and Lord Hothfield took part. That can best be described as looking rather like the Turner picture of the "Wreck of the Medusa".

Fifthly, it is important that the results of work carried out are measured properly in order to see what is the effect of what is being done. I understand that the campaign in the north west is probably the strongest in this country but despite that, the war is being lost. That was clearly explained to me by a friend in Hawkshead who said that when he was a boy, the northern limits of the grey squirrel were Crewe; now it is at the bottom of his garden.

Elsewhere, for example in the north east, further help is undoubtedly needed. In particular, a leading conversationist in Northumbria commented that it is absolutely critical to ensure that people realise that a fast response is necessary and that further bureaucratic delay could well lead to the extinction of the red squirrel in England. Also, local survey and distribution needs to be carried out and that involves extra resources. Further study needs to be carried out on the way that reds and greys interact. Project officers are needed to provide traps for owners and occupiers and, as I mentioned earlier, there is need for a grants structure to encourage the right kind of habitat.

In addition—and perhaps most serious—is the fact that in that conservationist's view, the steam has gone out of the red squirrel conservation movement and what is needed is a big new heave. It is perhaps that more than anything else which has caused me to ask this Question this evening and to bring forward this debate. I want to help to reinvigorate the campaign.

As some of us who have been involved in politics in all kinds of ways know, it happens from time to time that what appear to be complicated issues sometimes reduce themselves to very simple propositions. I believe that what we are discussing this evening is one of those because it is quite clear that if we go on as we are, the red squirrel will soon become extinct in England. It will join the wolf, the wild boar and the beaver as extinct species. It will be entirely our fault.

It is not necessary that that should happen. It is not inevitable that that should happen. What is needed is that the strategy which is already in place should be reinforced and reinvigorated. If we care—and I believe we in this House care, as do the public outside—we should do it, because we are not talking about a game. For the red squirrel, it is a war for survival. It is for that reason that I ask the Government to give an unequivocal commitment to throw all their resources and capabilities behind the effort to save the red squirrel and to declare war on its enemies so that that most lovable and loved of our British native animals can be saved for our children and their children and their children after them.

9.7 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, perhaps I may first congratulate the noble Lord on his initiative and on his obvious deep concern which I share and for which I hope my noble friend the Minister will be able to give a reassuring and encouraging reply at the end of the debate. I am conscious of the fact that there is considerable expertise in the field of ecology and conservation in your Lordships' House; indeed, perhaps more so than in the other place. However, my own interest in these subjects is fairly long standing. I trust that noble Lords will be able to pay some attention to the modest comments that I wish to make.

The noble Lord is right to say that the red squirrel is attractive. However, we should not limit our ecological concerns to those species which are attractive for biological diversity. Indeed, we should not pay excessive attention to such considerations. There is a place for broad survival within the whole pattern of British ecology.

It is possible that the noble Lord and I do not entirely agree about the effect of the grey squirrel. It is too easy to assume that the decline of the red squirrel is solely due to the grey squirrel. There is some evidence for that argument in that the grey squirrel did not reach my own county until 1906 and that, by the end of the 19th century, the red squirrel was certainly in decline in Yorkshire. I am not suggesting that the grey squirrel presents no threat to the red squirrel, but it is possible that several other causes should be considered. I would not wish those areas which have not seen a red squirrel for decades to find all their grey squirrels trapped, shot or poisoned. Indeed, there are grey squirrels in the wood in which I walk. There certainly were red squirrels there when I was a boy, but there have not been any there for quite a long time.

It seems likely that there is a problem with regard to disease. I hope that I may be able to say a few words about that in a moment. However, I could not resist taking part in tonight's debate because it is 25 years this month since I spoke in a debate in another place regarding the red squirrel and the introduction of a warfarin order. I spoke in that debate to criticise the order because the Ministry of Agriculture had announced that there were no red squirrels in our grid square. On the previous Saturday evening I was actually watching badgers, as I was preparing a book on the subject at the time. However, I also found myself watching red squirrels in an area which the Ministry of Agriculture had decided was free of them. I said that I did not want warfarin scattered about in that particular grid square because I had not seen a red squirrel there for rather a long time.

There may still be some red squirrels left in Yorkshire—perhaps a few colonies north of Sheffield in the Wharncliffe woods and the Ewden valley, but certainly they are in serious decline in our county. As the noble Lord said, such fastnesses as remain in England are in the beleaguered north-east. In that regard, I should like to join the noble Lord in paying tribute to the noble Viscount. Lord Ridley, who has played an important part in such matters. That is certainly recognised by my own county trust, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, of which I have long been a member and patron. One hopes that the initiatives in the north-east and the work being carried out in the north-west will be sustained to ensure that there is survival.

Of course, it requires a degree of public funding, but I do not think that that would be astronomic. The noble Lord will be aware that estimates have been made which state that in order to secure the survival of the red squirrel in England the sum of …200,000 a year for a short period would be required. That is little more than the …75,000 which, I believe, has so far been expended. I am sure that many Members of Her Majesty's Government would regard that sort of expenditure as being desirable. Of course, some taxpayers might not like it, but, like the noble Lord, I believe that it would be a worthwhile expenditure. Indeed, I am sure that many millions of people in this country would like to think that red squirrels will survive other than in the pages of Beatrix Potter books, or in a few old books on British natural history.

We must also ensure that we approach the matter intelligently. For example, some time ago in Yorkshire there was an attempt to relocate red squirrels in an area from which they had disappeared. Seven red squirrels were released into ash and sycamore woodland. But, if the red squirrel dislikes any habitat at all, it is ash and sycamore woodland, so in a matter of weeks the squirrels disappeared from the area in which they were released. I do not know where they went.

However, there are areas where red squirrels and grey squirrels seem to co-exist. In that context, we should consider the question of viral disease. In addition to the research on immuno-contraception, and so on. to which the noble Lord properly referred, I believe that a study of disease is required. In that regard. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can persuade the Ministry of Agriculture to carry out a modest programme of post-mortems when red squirrel carcasses are available to establish whether viral disease is a significant factor in regard to their decline. That is the kind of task that the Ministry of Agriculture could certainly undertake without great difficulty. It would be a useful study for it to undertake before it embarked on a programme of mass extermination of grey squirrels, if only to avoid destruction of squirrels in areas where the reds have long been absent.

I do not wish to detain the House much longer. However, I would like to think that one day red squirrels will return to my area. I do not know whether any noble Lords who are present today were present at a debate which took place 15 years ago in another place. Perhaps the occupant of the Chair was present. On that occasion I remarked that there were occasionally sightings of squirrels near my area which were described as black. I believe that was the result of some squirrels being imported from Europe in the middle of the 19th century by a Lord who lived in the area. Apparently there was a melanistic strain among them. My late and highly regarded honourable friend Brynmor John passed away some years ago. When I referred to black squirrels in the debate he interrupted me to suggest that as I had 12 collieries in my constituency in those days the black colouring was almost certainly due to coal dust rather than to the colouring of an imported strain of squirrel. As I have said, we have no red squirrels in my area at all. I should like to think that one day we shall see them again. Let us first secure the existing populations of red squirrels that remain in the northern counties of England and perhaps in one or two places elsewhere—Brownsea Island springs to mind—in the hope that those populations will expand.

There may be a long, historic cycle that determines the population of red squirrels in Britain. Periodic outbreaks of disease may have serious effects on that population. However, it would be nice to see the red squirrels survive.

I believe that they have a chance if the appropriate ecological conditions are established. After all in a good season they can produce two litters of young a year. They can have as many as six in a litter. I believe that the average litter comprises three young. One would hope that, given the appropriate habitat, one could establish a sufficient population to guarantee survival of the species. As the noble Lord said, our first task is to secure their survival. I trust that the expenditure that has been mentioned and the slightly higher priority that has now been given to this matter will achieve a great deal.

The noble Lord said that a big heave is required. The chief executive of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust said to me earlier this week that it needs a shove. There may be some difference between a shove and a heave but we certainly need to see some forward momentum. I hope the initiative mentioned by the noble Lord will ensure that that is achieved.

9.16 p.m.

Lord Wise

My Lords, a long time ago in 1954 I took over a farm in Norfolk which contained around 160 acres of mixed woodland. At that time only red squirrels lived in those woods and they were indeed beautiful to see. A few years later one saw the odd grey. It is thought that reds are usually displaced within 12 to 15 years of the arrival of greys, but in the case of my relatively small area of woodland it seemed no time at all before the reds had completely disappeared. I was amazed by the speed with which the wood was completely colonised by the greys and at the extinction of the reds. I never knew the reason for this. One would have thought that with the mixture of broadleaf and coniferous trees and the considerable quantity of hazelwood, the food available would have been ample for the two species to have lived in harmony.

As far as I could see, one explanation was that the reds were killed by the larger, more vicious greys. Possibly the young reds—I believe they are called kittens—were killed in their dreys by marauding adult greys. I do not know whether that was the case. But I also thought they may have died from some disease of which the greys were carriers but to which they were immune. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, I would like to see initiated a properly funded intensive scientific veterinary investigation into the diseases of squirrels. Surely this could be carried out within the research aims of the biodiversity action plan. I believe this to be essential for it is evident that one of the current factors in the decline of red squirrels is disease.

I understand that within the biodiversity action plan the Forestry Commission is researching a hopper designed to be selective in poisoning grey but not red squirrels. That is not permitted at the moment, but it is still being researched. If it is successful it will be of great help in controlling greys and allowing the re-establishment of reds into areas from which they have been displaced. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, I want to see greys and reds living together. I think that is possible. However, it is essential that grey squirrel numbers are controlled to allow the reds to survive.

Over the past 50 years there has obviously been some habitat loss which may have been a contributory factor in the decline of the red squirrel, but it has not caused any decline in the grey squirrel. However, many owners are now aiming to provide long term woodland management and are growing appropriate conifers to benefit the red squirrels. It is imperative that there is appropriate habitat for the red squirrels to survive. I am sure that it is being provided wherever possible. However, it is not always possible and much research is still needed to assist the red squirrel to live alongside the grey within the conifer woodlands.

I am sure that when the Minister winds up the debate, the noble Baroness will inform us of the proposed action and action being taken for the protection of the red squirrel within the biodiversity action plan. I wholeheartedly welcome that and look forward to hearing her estimate of the chances of success. But we must not forget the many dedicated volunteers who give up their time, and work hard, both singly and within organisations, for the red squirrels' conservation. Their efforts are highly commendable and I am sure in the fullness of time will come to fruition.

9.21 p.m.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for putting down this Unstarred Question and for initiating a debate which I think and hope must be on a completely non-political subject.

His Question refers specifically to Great Britain, but I hope that my lifetime experience of squirrels in Ireland—where habitats are very similar, and where in any case I am only five miles from the United Kingdom—will be considered relevant.

I remember 65 or even 70 years ago the mature, deciduous woodlands around me—mainly oak, beech and chestnut—were well populated with red squirrels, with never a grey squirrel to be seen. The greys began their invasion about the time of the war. They were all the descendants of one pair which had been brought into Ireland as pets by Lady Granard a few decades before. Inevitably they escaped into the wild. I believe that it is the greys which are principally responsible for the decline of the red squirrels all over these islands. They are much stronger, more aggressive and, unlike the reds, do a great deal of harm, especially to young trees. In my part of Ireland they steadily won the competition for the limited supply of beechmast, acorns and hazelnuts. I do not believe that they fought with the reds and killed them, as is sometimes supposed, but rather that they drove them out of the woods into open country where they were unable to survive.

However, I am happy to report that in my area the reds are now making a comeback without human intervention. Seven years ago I saw one at Killegar for the first time in 30 years. They are now becoming quite numerous. In the meantime, the number of grey squirrels is declining and they are now seldom seen. I attribute this reversal of their fortunes to two unconnected factors. Because they are all descended from the original pair which escaped from her Ladyship, I believe that the greys have become so inbred that they have lost their strength and aggressiveness. They have become decadent. I suppose that we cannot hope for that to happen in Britain.

But it is a relevant fact that over the same period the reds have benefited from the many extensive stands of Norway and Sitka spruce that have been planted for the first time in the area and have now grown big enough to be bearing fir-cones.

It is a happy fact that grey squirrels, in my experience anyway, do not like fir-cones. They may not like sycamore and ash either, as my noble friend suggested; but certainly they do not relish fir-cones, whilst red squirrels thrive on them. So they have the Sitka all to themselves.

I do not know how this can be applied to the situation in Britain. Perhaps the reds can be encouraged to populate spruce plantations—perhaps by trapping and relocating them. This may be happening already, I do not know. If not, it must be worth a try.

9.26 p.m.

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, I apologise for speaking in the gap. I merely wish to make one small point. Recently, the adverts that NPI has been putting on television have created an enormous amount of interest in this subject, which I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Inglewood for raising—so much so, that the other day, my experience was rather like that of the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken. In Ayrshire we do not have many squirrels; the squirrels that we have seen for years have always been grey. Certainly, in the 50 years that I have lived there I have never seen a red squirrel—until, funnily enough, three weeks ago, when I was sitting at home. One red squirrel appeared right outside the house. It was followed by another two only a week later. Whether it was the same one with a friend, I do not know, but I certainly saw three red squirrels. It caused enormous excitement both in my family and among everyone who lives around us.

It is funny that a little animal such as a squirrel could cause such excitement. I take on board the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, that we should not encourage them merely because they are beautiful animals. However, they do have another advantage—they are British. We have lost so many of our natural species in this country that anything that can be done should be done. I applaud the efforts to find out what is causing the problems. Is it a disease? Is it merely the end of their lifespan? What is it? We must research the matter. It would give an enormous number of people great pleasure to see the red squirrel again in our land.

9.28 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for introducing this debate. I should also like to thank the Wildlife Trusts, and Tim Sands, who is known to a number of noble Lords, for the large amount of detailed briefing that he gave me on this subject.

I, too, spent my youth in Buckinghamshire, where there were still quite a lot of red squirrels, which we encouraged. A lot of grey squirrels had come in. My father always referred to them as "tree rats", and I was encouraged to further my shooting skills at an early age by killing them. During the Second World War that was encouraged.

I believe that the difference between then and now lies in the immense amount of research that has gone into the matter. It may not have achieved very much in the shape of stemming the tide of greys; however, it has brought us much greater knowledge. In those days, we used to think of the grey squirrels as killing the red, as has just been said. However, it is now accepted that that is not so. The effect of the greys is that they push the reds out of the area because they manage to make much better use of whatever there is to eat. We now know how to encourage the red squirrels better by helping them with their diet.

Many small actions can be taken. One suggestion is that where red squirrels have runways across roads, in order to avoid being run over they should be helped by signs denoting red squirrels. That would be useful from two points of view. First, we would have fewer dead red squirrels on the road. Secondly, it would help to reinforce the image of the red squirrel in the public mind. We must not forget that with the change over the past 50 years and the vanishing of the red squirrel, the greys are now as popular with many people who do not know of the pressure they put on red squirrels. The greys are valued and therefore any campaign to diminish grey squirrels as opposed to merely preserving the reds needs considerable popular effort. Here I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, who said that we do not wish in any way to prevent there being the greatest possible diversity. We are not against grey squirrels; we are trying to help the red squirrels.

I have talked about red squirrel crossings. We are also learning about the necessity to grow more and more hazelnuts which red squirrels particularly like. Beyond that, there is research now into selective hoppers for feeding, hoppers that red squirrels can use but which grey squirrels will not. If one reaches the stage of trying to diminish the grey squirrel population anywhere, one can also have hoppers which are selected for dispensing poisons. I am not in favour of poisons as such: my medical consultant has tried to get me to take warfarin and I shall not, and I do not see why I should wish warfarin on the squirrels.

Not everything that might help red squirrels is a necessity. I am told that one of the most useful things one can have is large blocks of variegated trees but nevertheless all conifers in the hills. That will create a habitat for squirrels. I am not greatly in favour of enormous blocks of conifers; it is a matter for another debate and one which your Lordships discuss quite often. However, we must choose the best methods of trying to help the reds and discourage the greys. Money is needed and we are told that it is not a great deal. I hope that we will get such help from the Minister when she replies.

We have been told tonight that possibly red and grey squirrels cannot live together in peace. But we have also been told that in various areas red squirrels are coming back. That is the most encouraging thought for tonight. My last remark is that squirrels possibly have something to teach human beings in the way of living together. I am reliably informed that in County Fermanagh they live together peacefully. I am not sure that human beings in County Fermanagh live together as peacefully as the squirrels do. So we have something to learn from them and I hope the Minister will be able to give us satisfactory help in the matter.

9.35 p.m.

Baroness Farrington

of Ribbleton: My Lords, I begin by saying to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that I have not been briefed on the advisability of agreeing to having red squirrel crossing signs and will therefore look into that. What I can say from personal experience is that we have signs in parts of Lancashire near Southport warning us when natterjack toads are crossing the road. But they only cross the roads for short periods of time. However, I will investigate that point and write to the noble Lord.

All Members who have spoken expressed gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for giving us an opportunity to speak about the significant pressures on our native red squirrel. He did not understate the seriousness of the position. The United Kingdom's red squirrel population has suffered a marked decline over the past 50 years. After the water vole, it is our second most rapidly declining mammal. During the same period of time we have seen the grey squirrel increase in numbers and range throughout most parts of England and Wales.

The current population estimate of red squirrel numbers stands at 160,000. As many noble Lords said, its distribution is now largely confined to Scotland, Northern Ireland and the extreme north of England. There are still scattered and isolated populations in southern England, on three islands in Poole harbour in Dorset, on the Isle of Wight and at Thetford in Norfolk. It was useful to have the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Wise, on his experience in Norfolk. Sadly, it appears that red squirrels recently became extinct in Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, and in Wales only a few thousand red squirrels remain, confined to scattered localities, notably on the island of Anglesey.

As my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath said, there are a number of reasons why the population of red squirrels is in decline. There are three factors which are broadly recognised as having a negative effect on reds. My noble friend Lord Kilbracken referred to the Irish experience to give an added insight into the difficulty of balancing the possible causes. The introduction of the grey squirrel into this country resulted in a displacement of reds from areas in favour of the more adaptable grey. But habitat fragmentation is a second contributory factor, where areas become less able to support reds and thus indirectly increase their vulnerability to displacement by grey squirrels.

As my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath and the noble Lord, Lord Wise, said, disease is another contributory factor. I can say to my noble friend Lord Hardy that research into the parapox virus infection is under way and includes a programme of post mortem examinations of red squirrels to seek to identify the background and the rate. Autopsies on red squirrel carcasses collected under a scheme referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, as the "North-West Red Alert", are carried out by the Institute of Zoology in London. They show the presence of a chicken-pox/smallpox-type virus called parapox. The Institute of Zoology stated that the virus was currently untreatable but a vaccine may be found. Parapox virus infection and a disease with similar signs has only been described since grey squirrels were brought to the country.

This Government do not underestimate the threat to this popular native species and are committed to its conservation. I hope that, after hearing what 1 have to say, the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and the House will be satisfied that we are taking the threat seriously.

The steps I shall outline are fully in accordance with this country's undertaking to maintain biodiversity made at the Earth Summit at Rio in 1991. The UK has been at the forefront of recognising the importance of conserving biodiversity and in January 1994 the then government were the first to publish an action plan to secure this biodiversity. I pay tribute to them for that. In accordance with that plan a biodiversity steering group was established and charged with producing species action plans.

The red squirrel is one of 121 species for which the steering group has produced a species action plan. The plan recommends a set of targets for the species and a range of actions to support those targets.

In accordance with the plan, the Government have appointed the UK Red Squirrel Group as lead partner for the plan, thus charging it with overseeing the conservation of the red squirrel. The group is chaired by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and has representatives from four squirrel groups, representing England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Forestry Commission and the Northern Ireland Forest Service. The group recognises that conservation of red squirrels will take place only through action on the ground and, as such, the impact of the group, via its Country Squirrel Group members to regional squirrel groups, and, for example, the wildlife trusts, is vital.

The UK Red Squirrel group is concentrating its efforts in the area of site safeguard at present. It has agreed a model format for regional action plans which regional groups will be asked to produce for their areas, with assistance from national groups. This seeks to categorise areas depending on the status of their red squirrel population and its vulnerability to grey squirrel encroachment, using criteria rooted in the JNCC's UK strategy for red squirrel conservation. Efforts are currently under way to develop these plans for all areas where red squirrel conservation is a consideration and we would encourage all those involved.

The UK group is also developing criteria for prioritising the use of public funds towards those areas where greatest conservation benefit can be obtained. The Forestry Commission has helped to develop those criteria, which are being used to identify three categories of areas suitable for red squirrel conservation. These are areas of more than 2,000 hectares of coniferous forest which hold healthy red squirrel populations and areas of more than 200 hectares of coniferous forest where the habitat can be improved for the red squirrel, as well as other areas where the species is still present.

Having categorised areas and prioritised where funds will be spent, it is essential to know what action is appropriate. It is generally accepted, as many speakers have indicated, that greys usually out-compete reds in deciduous woods, while reds are better able to survive in coniferous forests. Grey squirrels are much bigger and heavier than reds and are also better able to compete for the large seeds that many of our broadleaved trees produce, either because they can harvest them better before the red squirrel or perhaps because they can digest them better. Therefore, in the typical broadleaved British wood, with its mix of oak, beech, hazel and chestnut, the grey effectively out-competes the British red. The result of this is that the red squirrel cannot put on enough fat to survive the winter and either starves or suffers reduced breeding success the following year.

The prognosis is not, however, entirely gloomy because in mixed coniferous forests, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, said, where the smaller and more nimble reds are better able to access the tiny conifer seeds, scientists currently believe that the British reds can out-compete their American cousins.

In the area of habitat management research and action, government agencies and other partner organisations are encouraging and undertaking research into exactly what type or, more likely, mix of conifer trees are best for red squirrels and interactions between red and grey squirrels in the few areas where they appear to co-exist, a point brought out in the debate, such as near Dunkeld in Perthshire. The Dunkeld research, funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Forestry Commission and the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species, will consider how we should design such forests so that they may stand as a refuge for the red squirrel, giving them the competitive edge over grey squirrels. I join noble Lords in paying tribute to the commitment of the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, as regards the work in Northumberland.

In Kielder Forest, Northumberland, the Forestry Commission is planting Scots Pine and Norwegian Spruce areas in preference to the more commonly planted Sitka Spruce. These are varieties which produce the larger cones which red squirrels prefer. That may be of interest to my noble friend Lord Kilbracken as regards the type of conifers that squirrels prefer. The Forestry Commission is also changing the mix of species to favour reds in several other forest areas, including Thetford, in Norfolk, and Clocaenog, in North Wales. All the beech, oak and chestnut trees have been removed from the Thetford red squirrel reserve. The commission has also produced guidelines for the management of coniferous woodlands which encourage the planting of large coned coniferous trees.

I recognise, as was said during the debate, that this produces its own problems where there is a conflict of interest because people are arguing for fewer coniferous forest plantations and more of the native broadleaf tree planting in future.

Research on species management and protection has concentrated, until recently, on the development of methods for controlling grey squirrel populations by targeting the animals as well as the habitat. I understand how many members of the public do not view the grey squirrel as an alien invader, particularly as many people have never seen a red squirrel. The noble Lords, Lord Hardy of Wath and Lord Beaumont of Whitley, drew attention to the fact that the grey squirrel is regarded as a welcome visitor to urban gardens and parks. But having suffered a problem with grey squirrels getting into the roof of our home last year because the trees were coming too close, I know that they can be a little too close for comfort as visitors in urban settings.

However, investigations into the suitability of warfarin in controlling grey squirrels have taken place, but it is apparent that that would be unacceptable to many people, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, said. It is important that we continue to seek alternatives. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred to the Forestry Commission investigating the potential of immuno-sterilization of grey squirrels. This would attempt to render grey squirrels infertile using an orally-administered vaccine. It now seems likely that the commission, in co-operation with the JNCC and private forestry groups, will continue to pursue this line of research. But it may be a long-term solution. Success is far from guaranteed at this stage.

I pay tribute to the work of volunteers and join the noble Lord, Lord Wise, in referring to the need for this kind of work. Much work is currently being undertaken through the 10 red squirrel groups working with national squirrel groups, government agencies, independent bodies and landowners. Noble Lords may have read in the press recently of the advance of the grey squirrel west through the Nith Valley towards the red squirrel stronghold of Dumfries and Galloway. The appropriate regional red squirrel group in this area is attempting to work with landowners to prevent this encroachment.

There is so much that could be said about the importance of protecting the interests and future of red squirrels in this country. To this end, the JNCC's UK strategy must be made freely available to everyone. A leaflet has been produced by the JNCC and the pensions provider, NPI, to which the noble Lords, Lord Inglewood and Lord Rowallan, referred, which has joined other sponsors, particularly in other parts of the country, in doing a valuable job to help in this conservation area.

In a similar debate which took place in another place in February 1996, the then Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State for the Environment said: amongst our school children. I fear, it is an assumption that 'British' squirrels are grey. We must, at this late hour. give our native red squirrel, now outnumbered 15 to one, a fighting chance for survival". The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, raised the question of resources. The Forestry Commission has indicated that it is prepared to pay a grant towards the cost of managing woodlands for red squirrels if a long-term plan is agreed in suitable locations. Funds are available through English Nature, Scottish National Heritage, and the Countryside Council for Wales, all of which are contributing, together with the JNCC, to research and development projects in this area.

As to the chances of survival for red squirrels, I can only speculate. It is by no means certain that red squirrels will remain a feature of any part of our landscape, and difficult decisions over controlling grey squirrels and safeguarding key areas will need to be made if we are to ensure that the grey squirrels survive. I hope, however, that what I have said will reassure the House that the Government will continue the work of striving to ensure the long-term survival of one of our most popular and identifiable small mammals. Who knows—

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will forgive me for intervening. The noble Lord, Lord Hardy, referred to the need for one more "shove". Speaking in Cumbrian, rather than Yorkshire, I refer to one more "heave". Bearing in mind that it is clearly necessary to give a new impetus to the initiative to save the red squirrel, will the noble Baroness ask her right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister whether he would like to front a new initiative to try to give renewed vigour to all those involved in this campaign?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I am sure that my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister will read with interest that request for him to join and to give a heave or a shove to this campaign. I know from experience that the weight of his shove behind a campaign is of great value.

In speaking of the future, it is important that we work together. The public and private sectors, together with volunteers and those working in conservation, must work together to give the sort of push that will he necessary to keep red squirrels at the centre of our attention. As the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley said, if in County Fermanagh, the two species have learnt to live together, perhaps they have more to teach us than merely the pleasure of watching them at play.