SCOTLAND’S leading animal welfare charity this week warned ordinary members of the public not to get involved with the trapping and killing of grey squirrels, advocated as vital by conservationists if the native red species is to be protected from a lethal virus.
Mike Flynn, chief superintendant with the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, spoke out this week after a plea was issued by the Red Squirrels in South Scotland (RSSS) group for people in the Borders area to get involved with the trapping and culling of local grey squirrels.
Introduced from their native North America in the late 19th century, the grey squirrel has rapidly colonised much of Britain with a rapid spread northward that has displaced the native red variety.
The native red species is also at risk from a lethal virus carried by some of the greys. Squirrelpox virus is only carried by grey squirrels without causing them any harm, but is fatal to the reds.
Infected red squirrels are very quickly unable to see or to feed properly and soon become malnourished before dying within 15 days.
Over the past ten years the RSSS project has worked to stem the incursion from England of pox-carrying grey squirrels and contain and reverse the spread of the squirrelpox virus within affected areas in the 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.
Just recently, a red squirrel displaying symptoms of the pox was found along the River Tweed between Coldstream and East Ord 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 may now have started using the natural corridor that follows along the River Tweed as a route into the region.
It means the Borders could soon find itelf on the frontline of the battle to halt the spread of the disease and Ms Ramoo wants to see more landowners and other members of the public 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 we are having difficulty with is Kelso,” she said.
“If infected grey squirrels are now moving westwards after coming over the border near Coldstream, then we need to encourage more people in the area to get involved.”
The trap loan scheme involves caught grey squirrels being 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.”
She added: “Anyone who refuses to abide by the above is not allowed to participate under the project.”
But such assurances have not satisifed the Scottish SPCA, with Chief Superintendent Flynn warning that it was 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 explained.
“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.
“However, it is also an offence to release a grey squirrel back into the wild once it is caught, therefore we would strongly discourage anyone from trapping such an animal in the first place.”