Fears over ‘humane’ killing of grey squirrels

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SCOTLAND’s leading animal welfare charity says it is not satisfied that the trapping and culling of grey squirrels by ordinary members of the Borders public can be carried out humanely, writes Mark Entwistle.

Mike Flynn, chief superintendent with the Scottish SPCA, this week told TheSouthern that Borders residents should not get involved with a trap loan scheme being used as part of a project to stem the spread of the squirrel pox virus which is harmless to greys, but lethal to the native red species.

Since its introduction from North America in the late 19th century, the grey squirrel has rapidly colonised much of Britain, displacing the native red variety from many of its traditional habitats.

But red squirrels also face another, more deadly, threat from their grey cousins. Red squirrels are susceptible to a lethal infection carried by some of the greys. Squirrel pox virus is only carried by grey squirrels without causing them any harm, but is fatal to the reds.

During the past decade the Red Squirrels in South Scotland (RSSS) project has worked to stem the incursion from England of pox-carrying grey squirrels and contain and reverse the spread of the squirrel pox virus within affected areas in south Scotland.

Project staff work to help turn land holdings – including estates, woodland plantations and farms – into an effective grey squirrel control network using agricultural grant schemes to help fund this work.

Grey squirrel control in southern Scotland is carried out by a combination of professional grey squirrel control officers, volunteers and private landowners.

Just recently, a red squirrel displaying symptoms of the pox was found between Coldstream and East Ord, near Berwick, and there have been other isolated cases in southern Scotland, as well as a number of infected grey squirrels being reported.

RSSS project co-ordinator Karen Ramoo says infected greys from England may now have started using the natural corridor that follows along the River Tweed as a route into the region.

It means that, in the central Borders, Kelso could soon find itself on the front line of the battle to halt the spread of the disease and Ms Ramoo wants to see more landowners and other members of the public in the Kelso area getting involved with the project, especially its trap loan scheme.

“We rely very much on members of the public and local landowners, but one area where we are having difficulty in getting volunteers to help is Kelso,” she told TheSouthern.

“If infected grey squirrels are now moving westwards after coming over the border near Coldstream, then we need to encourage more people in the Kelso area to get involved.”

The trap loan scheme involves grey squirrels being caught and killed and a blood sample taken, and Ms Ramoo says full training is given on how to humanely dispatch the animals.

“The project follows strict animal welfare guidelines and all those who take part in the trap loan scheme must abide by these – they are asked to sign a declaration form,” she informed us.

“Each participant is visited either by myself or a project control officer and we give full instructions and training on the setting and monitoring of traps, along with the dispatching and blood sampling of grey squirrels.

“Those involved with the project must use the recognised legal methods of dispatch which are shooting with an air pistol or cranial dispatch. Anyone who refuses to abide by the above is not allowed to participate under the project.”

Ms Ramoo stressed that all trapped grey squirrels are handled and destroyed humanely in accordance with the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996, and that any volunteer uncomfortable with the culling aspect of the procedure can ask for assistance from Ms Ramoo and her colleagues.

But such assurances have failed to satisfy the Scottish SPCA, with Mr Flynn pointing out it is an offence to cause any animal unnecessary suffering under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006.

“Once an animal is caught in a trap it is under the control of man and therefore offered the full protection of the law,” he told TheSouthern.

Mr Flynn believes there is too much scope for error by amateurs using the cranial dispatch method to kill grey squirrels.

“A trained person may be able to dispatch a squirrel in a humane manner, but we do not expect members of the public to be able to do this without causing at least some degree of suffering, particularly if using the cranial dispatch method,” he added.

“However, it is also an offence to release a grey squirrel back into the wild once caught, therefore we would strongly discourage anyone from trapping such an animal in the first place.”