Ecologist - Writer - Photographer

The Grey Squirrel conundrum: conservation v’s ethics

Grey squirrel over the fence, Southwell, England
This Blog is an extended version of Rescued grey squirrels to be killed under new law – but Britain’s ‘invasive’ problem runs much deeper published in The Conversation. This version explores the ethics raised in the article in a bit more detail.

Grey squirrel over the fence, Southwell, England

In an ironic twist, at a time when the UK is expending great effort to extricate itself from the binding constraints of European Union rules and regulations via Brexit, Natural England chooses this as the appropriate point to strengthen its’ implementation of an obscure piece of EU legislation.

I say ‘obscure’ because many of you will not have heard of: REGULATION (EU) No 1143/2014 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 22 October 2014 on the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of invasive alien species:

The changed implementation of this regulation has controversial and emotive implications for wildlife rescue and animal welfare organisations in England. As of 1st December 2019, wildlife rescue centres, who previously took in, rehabilitated and released injured, ill or orphaned wild grey squirrels will, have to turn away, euthanise or accept lifetime keeping of any greys they take in (the latter assuming that they are granted possible exemption from the default ruling).

Red squirrel at base of Scots Pine, near Aviemore, Highlands, Scotland

Red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, near Aviemore, Scotland. Many red squirrel populations in the United Kingdom were reduced or replaced by grey squirrels, with squirrel pox disease (carried by grey squirrels) and competition with grey squirrels, the likely cause.

Conservation versus ethics

As such, England are simply moving into line with the rest of the UK, as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have maintained a policy of it being illegal to release grey squirrels into the wild for many years. The EU legislation does not require euthanasia of greys taken into captivity: “The Regulation does not include any obligation to cull animals”.

However, in Scotland, it is illegal to keep grey squirrels in captivity (with some exceptions for science, research, and education), so the default position for any grey squirrel taken into captivity is for it to be euthanized. Whilst the English legislation will not require euthanasia, some organisations, will apply that logic in England. Any grey squirrel coming into their care will be killed. This may seem harsh but consider the ethics as well as the practicalities of keeping a wild animal in captivity for its lifetime. Are valuable resources, food, space, time and money used to help other wild animals return to health and the wild, to be compromised by greys sitting in cages for the rest of their lives?

Grey squirrels are sentient beings. They feel distress. For an animal that has experienced the challenges and freedom of a wild life, being forced to live in the physical and psychological constraints of a cage are unlikely to be pleasant. Sometimes, for the sake of an animal’s welfare, it may be better to be dead, than to live an ‘unhappy’ life. Ultimately, whether a policy decision or an individual decision, this (death or a captive life) is not an easy decision to make.

The regulation change will impact, not only rescue centres, but also the public. For a moment, imagine yourself as a member of the public, who comes across an orphaned grey squirrel. You gently package the baby mammal to protect it from predators (perhaps local cats) and take baby squirrel along to your local wildlife rescue centre. They offer to take it in and kill it for you. You are not going to want that. So, what do you do? You cannot care for the orphan (you don’t have the expertise), but even if you wanted to, you could not, because it is illegal to keep a grey squirrel, and it is illegal to release it. What can you do? You will likely be very upset. And what happens to the baby squirrel?

As an ecologist, I am acutely aware of the conflict that often exists between animal conservation and welfare, and that the welfare of individuals is often de-prioritised or dismissed where a species is considered a 'pest'. 'Invasive' non-native species stand at the front-line of the issue.

When so much effort and expense is being put into killing grey squirrels in the UK, due to their negative impact on woodland and the native red squirrel (via parapox virus, and competition), it would seem illogical to save and release individuals that are 'rescued', in order to potentially return them to a barrage of shooting and trapping. Why invest time, effort and money on rehabilitating individuals to release into a population that is culled to reduce numbers?

I appreciate the logic that if an animal (irrespective of its status as native/non-native/invasive or otherwise) was taken from the wild, that there is no greater damage caused by returning it to where it came from. And the numbers of grey squirrels taken into captivity are tiny – so the environmental impact of release of a handful (~700 per annum) of grey squirrels, to areas where red squirrels are not present, is negligible. However, from a legislative perspective I can appreciate the problem of allowing this to occur: the logic of the legislation is to prevent release of 'invasive' species.

Grey squirrels are generally not culled in areas where there are no red squirrels and no commercial forestry concerns. So, an area-specific licencing system could be maintained, where greys are only released in areas with no red squirrels and no commercial forestry concerns. However, this could be problematic – do you release greys in one area and kill/keep greys from a neighbouring area? Where are the lines drawn in the sand? Such a policy may inadvertently result in translocation of grey squirrels to enable release in legal release areas – which is not necessarily good for the squirrel or the resident squirrels.

It may appear to make little sense to put time, effort and money into caring for animals of a species that upon release are targeted for cull. However, the point of rescue centres in this country is not principally about conservation, it is about animal welfare, the health and wellbeing of individual animals. The implementation of a stricter interpretation of the EU ruling takes that away.

Grey squirrels: the way(s) forward

Just about everybody accepts the impossibility of eradication of the grey squirrel. The only successful local eradication is Anglesey in Wales. That required the killing of 9597 grey squirrels at a cost of £1,019,000 (£106.18 per grey), including some costs for red squirrel reintroduction (CM Shuttleworth, personal communication in Derbridge et al 2016). And it took 16 years. In the rest of the country, do we want to commit to relentless killing of individual unfortunate greys in perpetuity?

Too often the default response to a ‘problem’ animal – is simply to kill it (think badgers and TB). I would prefer us not to have to kill grey squirrels, and to rely on natural processes to determine the new ecological balance. We are not there yet, but there is a need to continue to work toward solutions that do not require culls. Development of a squirrel pox vaccine (for red squirrels, file:///C:/Users/40000949/Downloads/r645_part_1.pdf), planting/managing woodlands to benefit reds over greys, use of oral contraceptives, and the possible return of the pine marten, all provide potential alternatives to trapping and shooting grey squirrels.

Grey squirrel with Nutella, Edinburgh, Scotland

Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with Nutella. Scientists are researching oral contraceptives to limit reproduction and reduce grey squirrel density. Nutella is one suggested bait (other chocolate hazelnut spreads are available).

The evil invasive

Too often, as soon as an animal is referred to as a ‘pest’, or an ‘invasive’ species, any concerns or considerations for its welfare go out the window. The grey squirrel is oft vilified.

The Government press release on the change on legislation re. grey squirrels,, refers to an economic cost to the UK economy of £1.7 billion per year. However, the grey squirrel alone is not responsible for this cost: which is the estimated financial hit due to all invasive species in the UK. The estimated cost of grey squirrels to UK forestry are estimated at £10 million per annum*. That cost includes grey squirrel control, with little evidence that grey control has been economically successful. There is no link between control expenditure and damage reduction. So, killing grey squirrels is not necessarily money well spent.

An argument is often made that grey squirrels predate bird nests. They do. So do red squirrels. But there is scant evidence that they have a significant impact on songbird populations. In contrast, the negative impact of domestic and feral cats on songbird populations is not in question, they kill a minimum estimated 27 million wild birds per year in the UK (and 92 million wild prey per annum). Yet, I don’t hear those who call for grey squirrel culls (promoting the influence of songbird nest predation by greys) calling for culls of domestic and feral cats – despite the proportionally greater mortality impact on songbird populations.

Domestic or feral cat by bricks and window, Croatia

Domestic or feral cat. Cats are major predators of wild birds and other native wildlife.

Let me raise another comparison: involving domestic and feral cats. People keep cats (11 million in the UK), people rescue cats, people rehome rescued cats. Cats kill wild birds and mammals and other members of our native wildlife communities. Why is it acceptable for animal shelters to rescue an invasive alien species (the domestic cat), and for members of the public to keep and allow these predators to roam freely, to the detriment of our native wildlife? Or put another way, why is it not OK for wildlife rescue centres to rescue and release a few grey squirrels?

The irony of the pheasant

There are members of the hunting and shooting community who claim that they are motivated to shoot grey squirrels by their concern to maintain our natural environment. This is somewhat compromised by the fact that many of the members of such organisations are at the heart of, or support, the game bird industry, that releases millions of non-native birds (e.g. 35 million pheasants and 6.5 million red-legged partridges) into the British countryside each year… in order to shoot them.

Cock pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) displaying in open farmland, Scotland.

Pheasant, Phasianus colchicus. Image by Pete Cairns.

Why is it okay to release millions of non-native birds into the wild, and not okay to release a handful of unlucky grey squirrels? Why are ring-necked pheasant not on the EU hit list of Invasive Alien Species? There is evidence of negative effects on local plant communities (,-says-new-gwct-study/). There are suggestions that pheasant negatively affect our native adder (major conservation concern) population, and that they are a main predator on the extremely rare sand lizard ( A recent paper reviewing the representation of native and alien bird species in the UK concluded that the pheasant likely “have an important role in structuring the communities in which it is embedded”. The biomass of the pheasant “release exceeds that of the entire breeding avifauna”.

Let’s put that in perspective. There are an estimated 2.5 million grey squirrels living in the UK. People get very upset about that. 35 million non-native pheasant are legally released into the British countryside every year…

21 million (60%) of the released pheasant do not end up shot. This represents a £270 million waste per annum. The economic cost of road accidents involving pheasant is unknown, but an estimated 0.9-1.8 million accidents are caused by pheasant per year.

What of the ecological and ethics/welfare implications of the associated predator control? The indirect effect on native animal communities is likely substantial. The bird traps used under General Licence to capture and kill corvids and gulls are classed as humane. The use of this term is questionable. Snares can be legally used to kill fox. Dogs can be legally used to flush foxes out of cover to be shot. Stoats and weasels can be killed in snap traps.

A final irony, is that winter pheasant feeding may benefit grey squirrels – who opportunistically feed on the readily available supplementary food (Nichols and Gill 2016).

What to do with orphaned/injured grey squirrels?

Considering their ancestry, and negative ecological and economic impacts, why is the pheasant not routinely classed as ‘pest’ and ‘vermin’? Why is it legal to captive rear and release millions of them into our native habitats?

We live in a country where the ecological and economic costs of the game bird industry are acceptable, but squirrels in a grey coat are representatives of a nasty non-native species that not only need culled, but for whom, every last individual, including the sick and injured are to be exterminated as vermin.

With the changing legislation, what is my advice to the public? If you see an ill/injured/orphan grey squirrel – leave it be. It is better off taking its chances in the wild. We Brits are lacking in legal compassion, and using EU legislation to do so.

Grey squirrel in profile

Grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis. Despite consistent culling of this species, and now a UK-wide ban on release of rescued individuals, it continues to thrive in the United Kingdom.

*Mayle & Broome 2013. Also see press release by European Squirrel Initiative that estimates annual cost at ~£40 million per annum.

Keywords: grey squirrel, invasive species, pest, vermin, cull, animal welfare, wildlife rehabilitation centres, wildlife rescue centres, Brexit, cat, domestic cat, red squirrel, pheasant.

The lead image (click Blog and scroll down if you cannot see it) shows a grey squirrel peering over a fence, Southwell, Nottinghamshire, Scotland.

To see more photographs of grey and red squirrels, see my Scotland's Squirrels Gallery.

The Conversation article on which this extended Blog is based, can be read at Rescued grey squirrels to be killed under new law – but Britain’s ‘invasive’ problem runs much deeper.

Click here to read my first grey squirrel article for The Conversation: In defence of the grey squirrel, Britain’s most unpopular invader.