Squirrels to be given contraceptives
SQUIRRELS are to be given contraceptives in a project approved by Scottish ministers, The Scotsman has learned.
The Executive has agreed to fund research into immuno-contraception for Scotland's grey squirrel population.
Ministers want to know if contraception can be given to squirrels safely and effectively and whether this could solve the problem of the rapidly expanding grey squirrel population and the declining red squirrel one.
A Scottish Executive spokesman said it was impossible to say how much money would be spent on the scheme because it was being pursued with both the UK government and the Forestry Commission.
He said scientists were experimenting with a "fertility control agent" which had been used successfully in the US and was now being tried on a range of species, not just squirrels.
The squirrels are caught in humane traps before being given the contraceptive.
The spokesman said: "The materials are administered by injection, and recent formulations can render an animal sterile for a number of years with a single dose."
He stressed there were a number of problems still to be overcome, one of which was to make sure the contraceptives were not ingested by other species.
However, the Executive's decision to invest in this trial is surprising, given that previous attempts to sterilise squirrels were abandoned four years ago.
In 2002 the Forestry Commission and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee found it impossible to replicate the successful laboratory trials under field conditions.
Immuno-contraception has been successful in other countries, but only in larger animals like feral pigs.
Richard Wales, of Red Squirrels in South Scotland, a conservation group, said the best way of dealing with the grey squirrel population was "selective control" - or killing.
He said that support for grey squirrel "control" was rising by 5 per cent a year and was now backed by 74 per cent of people.
"The red squirrel has been here since the ice age and is one of the most endangered of our animals. It would be a shame to lose it entirely," he said.
Mr Wales said his group had started killing grey squirrels in 23 priority forests in the south of Scotland by giving them a sharp blow to the head - "cranial dispatch" - but he stressed it was not a cull because it was selective and controlled and only carried out in the areas where red squirrels were most at risk.
"It's all being done very responsibly, very sensitively and very humanely," he said.
However, Libby Anderson, from the animal welfare group Advocates for Animals, said she approved of contraception, if it could be proved to work, because that was much better than killing grey squirrels.
She said: "It has not been successful so far, but hopefully it can provide an alternative to lethal control. We are in favour of any control that does not impact on the welfare of animals.
"If immuno-contraception can be carried out successfully, that's fine."
WHY REDS ARE UNDER THREAT
THE battle between the UK's red and grey squirrels is decidedly one-sided. There are about three million greys and only 160,000 of their red cousins.
Scotland, particularly the south, is thought to be a stronghold of red squirrels; it is home to three-quarters of the UK population.
The greys are the more efficient eaters and spread a virulent squirrelpox virus to the reds. The virus does not harm the greys but is often fatal to the reds. This means that the greys, which were imported to the UK from the United States, are taking over the natural habitat of the reds and pushing them further back.
The campaign to save the reds is based on the premise that the reds are indigenous and the greys are invasive. Campaigners claim the reds are endangered and could be wiped out unless there is strong and decisive action taken against the greys.
Environmentalists say the reds are a tourist attraction, representing the archetype of the traditional British squirrel, and that they are an example of biodiversity which would suffer if they were wiped out.
GREY CULTURE AND RED PERIL - A COMIC'S VIEW
THE American grey squirrel, like its GI counterparts, is over here, over-cute and over-sexed. It's overrun the native red variety, which has been pushed to the edges of Scotland, like ginger boys in a disco.
Am I surprised ? No, frankly, I'm not. Just like everything American, grey squirrels are bigger, tougher and, most importantly, the male grey would appear to have a way with the laydeezz. Scottish reds tend to sit around mumbling about railway timetables and beer mat collections. The threat must be dealt with.
Other nations may go about with double barrelled shotguns giving Johnny Foreign Squirrel what for, but
not for us the shoot-to-kill policy.
Instead, we're going to get the squirrels to fire blanks and persuade them to Use Contraception.
But why the Executive expects squirrels to take to this when they can't get the human teen population of Scotland to use it is beyond me. The contraceptive is some form of chemical - so why has it not been tried with Bacardi Breezer?
There is certainly no point in trying to teach a workshop of squirrels how to use condoms. They can't even remember where they left their nuts.
• Susan Morrison is a stand-up comedian and Talk 107 radio presenter
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