HC Deb 08 September 2004 vol 424 cc316-24WH 4.12 pm

On resuming

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)

I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on a subject about which I have been concerned for a long time. It is one that I have raised previously in early-day motions and written and oral questions. It is the importance of ensuring the survival of the red squirrel, particularly in one of its few remaining bastions—the north-east of England.

For a number of reasons, I am glad that the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment is to respond to the debate. I had the pleasure of working with him as a colleague in the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. His commitment to the environment and conservation is widely known and hugely respected, and he has a deep knowledge of our countryside and its flora and fauna. He is also determined to honour our international obligations on environmental matters and biodiversity.

The north-east has the largest remaining populations of red squirrel in England. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 red squirrels remain in the country, three-quarters of which are to be found in Northumberland. The red squirrel is something of a regional icon; it is regarded with deep affection, and attempts to ensure its survival are hugely supported by the people of the area. I saw that at first hand this summer when I visited the National Trust property at Wallington Hall and saw how many people were observing them from the hides in the wildlife sanctuary—and how delighted people were to see them. Whenever I or other hon. Members raise the subject, we receive letters of support from many people in the region. I am grateful for that support.

The red squirrel is under considerable threat from grey squirrels, which are approaching the region from both directions—from further south in England and from further north. Squirrels from Edinburgh and the firth of Forth have now reached the borders of Scotland, and the situation is now becoming serious.

I should say from the outset that I am not calling for a solution along the lines of the dramatic policy launched by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment when he announced the cull of the entire ruddy duck population in our country. I recognise that grey squirrels have their friends and, along with London residents, I enjoy the sight of them in St. James's park and elsewhere. However, it is the remorseless spread of the greys and their role in eradicating our native red squirrel that is the problem.

An article in Natural World this spring gave figures for the decline of the red squirrel over the past 50 years. Whereas in 1953, the grey squirrel occurred only in Kensington gardens and other parks in the London district, the red squirrel at that time was distributed throughout Britain. Today, however, the red squirrel is outnumbered 66:1 by 2 million grey squirrels.

The threat from the grey squirrel to the red is twofold. First, the greys tend to win hands down in any competition with the reds and therefore invade their habitats and take their food. Secondly, they also pose an undoubted health threat to the reds in exposing them to the parapox virus. Grey squirrels do not appear to be affected by the virus, but current thinking suggests that they carry and transmit it to reds. The way that transmission occurs is not well understood: it may be by direct contact between squirrels or by indirect contact via scent markings or saliva. However, what is certain is that red squirrels die within 15 days of contracting the virus, and there is no known cure or vaccination.

I know that the importance of finding effective strategies to ensure the survival of the red squirrel population in the north-east and elsewhere is accepted by my hon. Friend the Minister. I welcome the fact that there has been increasing Government recognition of the problem. In turn, that has led to increasing awareness of it in the minds of the general public and, importantly, in the minds of farmers, landowners, foresters and the people that we tend to describe as the "key stakeholders" in rural areas.

I pay particular tribute to the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, of which I have been a member for many years. Its campaigns in association with local businesses and environmental bodies, such as the "Red Alert" campaign begun in 1992, have been well received and have led to much more systematic recording of sightings of both red and grey squirrels, information that is vital in devising effective red squirrel conversation strategies and measures to control grey squirrels.

The Northumberland wildlife trust has a full-time red squirrel conservation officer, Louise Bessant, who is energetic and committed to her role. In co-operation with other bodies, the trust has a strategy of creating red squirrel reserves with adequate buffer zones around them as a way of limiting the spread of greys. At the same time, it has a strategy of creating and expanding habitats that seem more suited to the reds than the greys and that therefore give the reds the opportunity of winning ground in the intense competition with greys.

The trust's strategies are assisted in several ways by the efforts of the Forestry Commission, whose chairman Lord Clark of Windermere is very supportive both personally and professionally of the case for ensuring the survival of the red squirrel in both the north-east and Cumbria. Of course, we remember him well as a former Member of this House for a north-eastern constituency and as someone who took environmental issues with the utmost seriousness.

Modest amounts of money are available under the Forestry Commission's woodland grant scheme, which can assist in the purchase of grey squirrel traps and the planting of certain trees, such as birch and rowan, whose seeds do not provide enough energy to support grey squirrel populations but sustain the less voracious reds. I note that the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) is in the Chamber. When he raised the issue of the red squirrel in an Adjournment debate a few years ago—I think in 1996—he mentioned that it would be desirable to have Forestry Commission grants. I am sure that he is pleased that those grants are at least having some impact, and are being applied for.

Despite such valuable work, some of which is still in its early stages, the remorseless decline of the red squirrel continues. Looking at maps of red and grey squirrel distribution in the north-east over the past few years, one can see that the greys have now colonised large areas of County Durham, where they were not previously present, and have also appeared in areas north of the River Tyne. The remaining red squirrel areas are looking increasingly and alarmingly vulnerable.

I contend that more resources will need to be devoted if we are to have any opportunity to reverse the trend. Such resources could increase the success rate of controlling the greys in various ways and of enhancing the number of habitats that would be favourable to the reds.

I want specifically to consider the issue of public funding. In a written answer to me last year, my hon. Friend the Minister said that the Department, through English Nature, had spent about £125,000 over the past five years on red squirrel conservation. I am not sure how much of that was spent in the north-east, but only one of the main four projects was specifically targeted at what were described as priority woodlands in northern England.

On the other hand, it is my understanding from information supplied to me by the House of Commons Library that the estimated cost of the ruddy duck cull over five years is in the order of £5 million. However, I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs hopes that £2 million of that money will be obtainable from European sources. That prompts me to ask two questions of my hon. Friend. First, is it not possible for at least as much money to be spent on a strategy to ensure the survival of the red squirrel as is envisaged for the ruddy duck programme? Secondly, is it possible to obtain European funding for a red squirrel strategy?

I know that the European Union as a whole is keen to promote the goals of the biodiversity convention. Red squirrels are not only under threat in Britain; for example, grey squirrels are in the north of Italy and there are worries about how far they may spread, although it is certainly true that the situation here is particularly dramatic.

Overall, it seems to me that we are talking about relatively modest current levels of spending on red and grey squirrels. About £100,000 a year is spent on research dealing with the control of grey squirrels, and about £200,000 a year on targeted control of grey squirrels on land managed by Forest Enterprise, together with a proportion of the annual management grant spent in England. I am not quite sure what level that proportion is at, and if my hon. Friend has any figures, I would certainly be interested to hear them.

Apart from fairly modest levels of spending, we are otherwise relying on the overstretched resources of admittedly committed volunteers and some welcome private sector support, which I know has been obtained in recent years. Furthermore, in mentioning some of the useful initiatives supported by the Forestry Commission money, I am aware that the money is disbursed on a first come, first served basis and that the grants are speedily exhausted. Indeed, I understand that no more may be available under those programmes in this financial year. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me whether that is the case, and, if so, what is his Department's estimate of the unfulfilled demand for squirrel-related grants?

I understand that the annual management grant is a discretionary amount based on the size of the woodland, and that the woodland improvement grant can pay up to half the costs of purchasing grey squirrel traps. However, I am also told that many landowners with small wood lots on their land do not apply for the grants as the annual payment for which they would be eligible will not cover the full costs of employing a contractor. Does my hon. Friend accept that there may be a problem? If there is, how can such a disincentive to some landowners be overcome? I should be grateful for his consideration of that issue. What the Department is spending now is better than it was in the past. As I said, I welcome its interest in and support for the red squirrel, but more resources are necessary and would be welcome. I worry that if the resources are too modest, they may fail to achieve the goals.

I want to question the Minister about another aspect of the Department's strategy. In reply to my oral question to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the Government's emphasis has been to seek to protect the red squirrel by protecting the habitat where it is most likely to survive rather than to interfere in the habitat of the grey squirrel. There is no doubt, sadly, that grey squirrels have a considerable advantage in, for example, broadleaf woodland."—[Official Report, 3 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 1062.] That is true; the Northumberland Wildlife Trust and others believe that the most defendable territory for red squirrels is the conifer plantations. However, I would be unhappy if red squirrels in the north-east were confined to conifer habitats rather than to the more attractive broadleaved woodlands, especially beech and hazel woods, which are their traditional habitat and much more easily enjoyed by human beings. If public money is going to help to ensure the survival of the red squirrel, people should at least be able to see them easily in attractive surroundings.

Although conifers are planted much more sensibly now, the plantations are still large, monochrome, unvarying, geometric slabs of territory, sometimes constituting blots on the landscape of the Cheviots and other parts of the north-east. I am tempted to exempt Kielder forest from that statement, because recently the area has been successful in promoting public access, and its new plantings are greatly preferable to the traditional conifer plantations. Generally, conifer forests can have a displeasing visual effect. Some areas were planted primarily for commercial purposes and may be cut down for commercial reasons, which may disrupt the red squirrel population.

I hope that my hon. Friend will examine not just the minimalist approach of confining red squirrels to conifer plantations, but that he will also seek to prevent grey squirrels extending into those broadleaved areas that are currently occupied by the reds. That is the least we should expect. However, it would also be good to ensure that within the broader, wider areas of conifer- dominated zones, which are designated as red-squirrel priority areas, there are some broadleaved places for red squirrels and humans to enjoy.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con)

I thank the right hon. Lady for raising the matter and doing a valuable service to the red squirrel. I strongly agree with her that we do not want red squirrels to be isolated in pockets of conifers because many people in her constituency and in suburban parts of Newcastle appreciate seeing red squirrels in the woodlands around their houses. It would be a pity if they were to be lost.

Joyce Quin

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know of his long-standing interest in the issue.

It is important to continue research into the most effective ways of controlling the greys and in promoting the well-being and life chances of the reds. Perhaps my hon. Friend can refer to the research that is being done. The culling of grey squirrels to prevent their entering buffer zones is important, although it is resource-intensive and not cheap. None the less, I was interested to read how greys were eliminated from the Newborough forest in Anglesey; it is something that could be considered in some areas in the north-east that greys have begun to penetrate and to control. Work on ways of controlling the parapox virus and preventing it from killing yet more reds is also vital.

I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that the Government are also working in co-operation with the Scottish Executive on the issue. Because the remaining bastions of the red squirrel in Cumbria and the north-east are adjacent to Scotland, effective joint working across national and local government boundaries is vital. All authorities, whether local, regional, national or UK-wide, need to be able to work together.

I could make other comments, but I am conscious of the time and the need to give the Minister time to respond. Despite the efforts of Government and the wildlife trusts, I believe that more needs to be done to respond to the public desire to save the red squirrel and to do enough to honour our commitments under international agreements such as the biodiversity convention. Certainly we can be in no position to preach to other countries where wildlife is under threat if we are not adequately protecting biodiversity within our own shores by ensuring the survival of a much-loved native species.

4.31 pm
The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) on the detailed case that she put forward for an animal that is very important nationally, and particularly in the north-east and Kielder, which is, as she described, one of its strongholds in this country.

I know that hon. Members who are present, including my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham), have a great interest in the red squirrel in Cumbria. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) has also raised the issue in Adjournment debates. Although my hon. Friend always manages to produce an osprey for me when I go to Cumbria he does not always produce a red squirrel, but he does his best.

The issue that my right hon. Friend raised is a serious one: a native species is under severe threat. She raised detailed questions about the action that can be taken not only to protect our remnant populations but, we hope, to help them to recolonise. I take her point about conifer woods and she was right to give Anglesey as an example. It is a good instance of how, through the control of grey squirrels and through recolonisation projects, the red squirrel has recovered and has spread out of the conifer woods and back to broadleaved woods. I do not underestimate the difficulty of that, but it shows that action can be taken to achieve the objective—one that I share with my right hon. Friend.

As a personal aside, I wonder whether one approach would be to use forestry management grants. They have been used to remove some broadleaved areas to provide red squirrels with protection, as they survive better in conifer woods than in broadleaved woods where they compete with grey squirrels. However, I wonder whether it would be possible to create buffer zones of conifers for broadleaved woods with red squirrel populations. Those issues are worth exploring and I know that the Forestry Commission takes them seriously.

My right hon. Friend talked about the eradication of the grey squirrel. There is certainly a need to control grey squirrels, not least because of the damage that they do to forestry, but also because of the threat that they pose to our indigenous red squirrel. I must be honest with my right hon. Friend and say that the large-scale eradication of grey squirrels is probably not the answer. It would be costly, would not be likely to succeed and would divert large sums of money away from other activities and projects that might be more useful for red squirrel protection.

The comparison that my right hon. Friend drew with the ruddy duck is still etched on my memory, but the Government are not spending £5 million on ruddy duck eradication. The present project costs considerably less, but it is true that an application has been made to the European Union for a considerable sum of money. The issue in that case is that the ruddy duck is an introduced exotic in this country, but is spreading into Spain, where it is threatening the endangered white-headed ducks. It is therefore perfectly reasonable that there should be a European contribution to what is a European conservation issue. That is what we are taking up with the European Union.

However, we are not the only country to have a grey squirrel problem. Italy, too, has the same problem of the introduction of the species and its competition with the indigenous red squirrels. There is nothing in principle to prevent us from making an application to the European Union, perhaps for a joint project with the Italians. I will pass that idea on to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who has responsibility for fisheries and the countryside. He would have liked to be here today but he is in Committee. However, I welcome the opportunity to talk about red squirrels, in which I have had a long interest, shared with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, who is a good friend and colleague from the days of MAFF, as she rightly stated. She has a long-standing interest in squirrel conservation.

We believe that the best way of contributing to the success of the red squirrel population is large-scale habitat management of forests. I can confirm that the current round of applications for planting grants has closed, including some for habitat management, although applications are due to open again in January. A number of contracts for dealing with the problem are continuing. The Forestry Commission is working with landowners in a partnership approach to provide advice and support on red squirrel management.

Other aspects are the management of buffer zones and the surveillance of grey squirrel movements. The Government work in a consortium involving different agencies including English Nature, the wildlife trusts and private landlords. There is also a great deal of interest from the public. The Forestry Commission chairs a steering group that oversees a project that has identified 20 areas in northern England where action to maintain red squirrels is most likely to be effective. That includes Northumberland and the Kielder area. Management plans have been prepared for those areas, which will also form the basis of a partnership project bid for heritage lottery funding to carry out some of the management activities there. That is another potential funding stream for red squirrel management.

A considerable amount of money is going into squirrel management at present. My right hon. Friend mentioned the £100,000 going into scientific research and development, particularly into contraception. She might be interested to know that a lot of work is being done on grey squirrel contraception control in the United States, where they are a problem. In New Zealand work is being done on contraceptive control in possums. We are sharing information and collaborating on those research projects, which helps to spread the considerable costs of a detailed scientific programme.

The Forestry Commission spends somewhere in the region of £115,000 in England on red squirrel management. Forestry research provides an additional £10,000 on various projects and the Government spend somewhere in the region of £100,000 on research. There are also specifically targeted grants to establish new woodlands to link fragmented woodlands, which have been used particularly in the case of the Isle of Wight. That scheme involved £127,000.

Those schemes are not all directed at the north-east in particular, but a lot of money is going into the national programme. I am not sure whether that also includes such things as support for project officers in the Forestry Commission, or project officers in some of the wildlife trusts that are funded to take forward biodiversity action programmes for red squirrels. DEFRA itself is a partner in the local biodiversity action programme in Northumberland, through the Rural Development Service. Of course, there are costs there that are absorbed within DEFRA that are not accounted for. All in all, a considerable amount of money is being spent on red squirrel conservation, but I accept that there is always an argument for more. The bid for the Heritage Lottery Fund and the potential for European funding may bring additional resources in. I would certainly welcome that.

Red squirrels are a priority for us in this country. I know how important they are in the north-east of England and in Cumbria. The red squirrels attract a great deal of attention, as my right hon. Friend says. I must make a correction. I said that the woodland grant scheme would be open in January. In fact, it will be April—the end of the year, in financial terms.

There have been a number of successes in relation to red squirrel conservation. The various projects around the country—not just in the north-east, but in places such as Anglesey and the Isle of Wight—add to the knowledge and experience of conservation management, which will be helpful in terms of translating that information.

My right hon. Friend has raised a number of important and serious points and I hope that I have answered her questions. I will be happy to provide her with more information, if she requires it. With people such as her, and many others, and the interest that they have expressed, I believe that the long-term future of the red squirrel is secure. However, we cannot be complacent and we recognise that we have a responsibility and a role to play as central Government, and that along with that there must be a partnership approach with the many organisations and individuals who are committed to the conservation of this wonderful animal.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Five o'clock.