As spring draws near, the majority of us will welcome the advent of blue skies and milder temperatures—except for, perhaps, wildlife rescuers in the U.K. The warmer months herald the start of breeding season, and as a result, rescue centres will soon receive an influx of orphaned and lost baby animals.
Among these animals will be infant grey squirrels, which, as of December 1st, 2019, U.K. rescue centres are legally prohibited from treating. The only “assistance” that the majority of centres are able to offer is euthanasia—a distressing prospect for anyone dedicated to the welfare of animals.
The New Invasive Species Order, legislation introduced by the U.K.’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, criminalises the rescue of non-native species. Previously, the rehabilitation and release of injured or orphaned non-native animals, such as grey squirrels and muntjac deer, was allowed in limited numbers through a licensing system.
Rescue centres were informed in December of 2018 that their “rehabilitate and release” licenses would be revoked at the end of April, 2019. The centres would have little future choice but to euthanise perfectly treatable animals.
An ensuing outcry and campaign, including a petition of over 60,000 signatures, led to a “stay of execution” that extended the centres’ existing licenses until October of 2019. The government also offered a second concession by granting licenses to keep, but not release, non-native species once the legislation took effect.
In July of 2019, the U.K. government further extended the expiration date of the “rehabilitate and release” licenses, to December 1st, 2019. Although the Order is already in effect, the full devastation of its consequences will likely not be felt until spring—the thick of breeding season for species such as grey squirrels.
The government’s concessionary granting of “licenses to keep” has understandably received a lukewarm response. Keeping indefinitely all the rescued animals of certain species is an unrealistic alternative to euthanasia for rescue centres. Housing an unlimited number of animals requires more space and more funds than any charitable organisation could ever provide. The majority of centres also consider keeping wild animals in captivity at odds with their core values. As of January 2020, few have applied for the new license.
As Natalia Doran, of Urban Squirrels, said in a recent interview;
A wildlife rescue that cannot release animals is like a hospital that cannot discharge patients—it would become some kind of horrific exercise in animal hoarding. Wildlife rescues are not zoos; we’re not equipped to keep animals long-term—we need to return them to the wild where they belong, and if that cannot be done, rescue is not possible.
The wide distribution of grey squirrels, in particular, makes them a common admission to rescue centres, and therefore among the species worst affected by the new legislation. But the reasoning behind their persecution is flawed.
Grey squirrels were deliberately introduced to the U.K. in the 19th century, when it was fashionable to release them into parks and estates across the country. Being so adaptable, they have thrived in both urban and rural environments, and are now a familiar and often welcome sight in gardens and city parks.
Grey squirrels have also long been vilified as the leading cause of the native red squirrel’s decline; they are accused of spreading a pox virus that has a high mortality rate among reds but is less fatal to greys. This popular myth amounts to a vast oversimplification of the many factors that contribute to the dwindling number of red squirrels on the British Isles, and is resulting in greys being culled and trapped with impunity.
Historically, red squirrels were considered a pest species, blamed for damage to trees and nests, much like greys are today. They were hunted in huge numbers, with the British government ordering culls on a massive scale. The human activity that arguably contributed most to their plummeting numbers, however, was widespread deforestation.
Unlike the adaptable greys, red squirrels need very specific forest conditions to prosper, conditions that were increasingly scarce in post-industrialised Britain. Red squirrels became extinct in England in the 18th century, before the greys were introduced. They were then re-introduced from Scandinavia, meaning that whilst the red squirrels’ fur may be the correct tone, their lineage is non-native.
The pox virus, which further accelerated the red squirrels’ decline, has been linked most prominently to poor hygiene of bird feeders. Studies suggest that, in terms of pox virus transmission, red squirrels’ interactions with greys ranks near the bottom of the list.
Globally, red squirrels possess a conservation status of “least concern,” and in areas where the reds’ preferred forest conditions are present, greys do not out-compete them. Eradicating grey squirrels through legislation such as the Order will most likely result in a total lack of abundance of any squirrel species in the U.K—at a cost of millions of grey squirrels’ lives.
The legislation fails to take the many nuances of the issues related to invasive species into consideration. Instead, it adheres to a simple narrative: native good, invasive bad.
Crucially, the U.K. Parliament also neglects to consider the ethical implications of preventing rescue. The legislation causes distress to members of the public unable to take orphaned or injured grey squirrels to their nearest wildlife rescue centres or veterinarians, for fear that the creatures will be euthanised, and distress to animal care professionals forced to either carry out euthanasia on treatable animals or face prosecution. It is unprecedented in U.K. law to force people to choose between legality and morality in this way.
Animals will suffer and die as a result of the Order, or, at best, spend their lives in captivity. Many “invasive” species were introduced to the U.K. by human activity—let’s not now vilify these same species for circumstances that we humans orchestrated.