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Grey squirrels – the biggest risk to our woodland heritage say woodland owners and managers
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The Royal Forestry Society (RFS) is calling on the Government and Forestry Commission England to put control of grey squirrels on a similar level of importance to that of tree diseases. It is pressing for more research, effective support for woodland owners and managers, and for a programme to increase public awareness of the threat to the health of our broadleaved woods caused by grey squirrels.

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Grey squirrel damage to the bark of pendunculate oak

 

The call by the RFS – the longest-established membership organisation for woodland owners and managers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – follows its online survey which asked woodland owners and managers to rate the danger of grey squirrels to woodlands, share their experiences of controlling grey squirrels and suggest what support they need.

The survey was completed by 750 people; 60% of survey participants were woodland owners and 40% managers, consultants or agents who clearly said: Grey squirrels represent the greatest threat to broadleaf woodlands, marginally ahead of tree diseases and well ahead of deer.

One respondent wrote: “I replanted the major part of my woodlands in 1987 with 80 per cent English oak. The bark stripping by grey squirrels over those 26 years has seriously damaged an estimated 40–50 per cent of the crop, in many cases fatally.”

The RFS would like to see more support for woodland owners to control grey squirrels and adapt woodland management practices, and for the lessons learned from collaborative approaches such as the Grey Squirrel Control Groups within Red Squirrel areas and the work of the Deer Initiative applied more widely. 

The survey results are being submitted by the RFS to Forestry Commission England's review of its policy Grey squirrels and England’s woodlands – policy and action, and a copy has been sent to Environment Minister Owen Paterson. A copy of the survey findings can be found at www.rfs.org.uk/news/hot-topics/grey-squirrels-survey

RFS Development Director Simon Lloyd said: “Protecting the health of our woods is the Government’s highest forestry policy priority, but compared with tree diseases, there is very little scientific research available on grey squirrel controls and very little support for woodland owners to tackle the problem. Woodland owners and managers need financial and practical support to help manage this threat to the health of our woods. This is not only about keeping grey squirrel numbers under control where trees are most vulnerable to damage, but also about adapting woodland management to reduce the risk.

“To date, the focus of financial support for squirrel control has been on protecting red squirrel habitats. That has done little to prevent grey squirrel damage to broadleaved woods escalating elsewhere in the country.

“Without adequate protection and adaptive management, many broadleaved woods planted in recent years risk ending up as scrub rather than reaching their potential for timber, or landscape and habitat value, and that is not an effective use of grants used to help plant them. The high risk of squirrel damage to broadleaved species such as oak and beech is a disincentive to planting them. Ash, which is relatively resistant to squirrel damage, is no longer a viable alternative. Our woodland heritage is therefore put at risk because of the grey squirrel.”

The RFS supports the work of the European Squirrel Initiative and will work with Government and FC England to develop a policy that properly reflects the threat posed by grey squirrels and supports woodland owners to control grey squirrel populations.

 

How grey squirrels damage trees and woodlands

 

  • From April until the end of July (early September in high-risk years) grey squirrels strip bark around a trunk, preventing the trees from growing properly. Up to 5 per cent of damaged trees may die and many more will have degraded timber value through stem deformation, rot and broken tops
  • Planted or naturally regenerated trees aged between 10 and 40 years, especially sycamore, beech oak, sweet chestnut, pine, larch and Norway spruce, are most vulnerable to damage
  • Grey squirrel carry a squirrelpox virus which proves fatal to red squirrels.

 

(Ref: RC England Guidance Note: Controlling Grey Squirrel Damage to Woodlands available athttp://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/fcpn004.pdf/$FILE/fcpn004.pdf