For decades the traditional British response to finding a trapped grey squirrel was to bludgeon it to death with a spade. Now a wave of sentimentality has led to a change in the law, granting Sciurus carolinensis a reprieve.
Until last year anyone catching a grey squirrel was required by law to kill it to help to preserve the native red species. The legislation has now been reformed, allowing people to release the animals into the wild – but only if they apply for and are granted a licence to do so.
The change, which permits up to 450 grey squirrels to be released this year, has provoked outrage from some wildlife activists. They fear that it will spell disaster for the native red squirrel, which has suffered a catastrophic decline since the American grey was introduced in the 19th century.
Natural England, the Government’s advisory body on nature, said that the policy change came about in response to public sentiment. “For some people, these species have become a part of our wildlife and give a great deal of pleasure,” a spokeswoman said.
The new policy caused consternation in the House of Lords, where a debate last month called into question the wisdom of treating grey squirrels humanely. England has about two million grey squirrels and the figures given show that 13,337 were exterminated in Northumberland alone since January last year.
The RSPCA, which has a licence for each of its regional superintendents, now has a policy to release uninjured trapped grey squirrels back into the wild.