"There is no scientific or ecological justification for this. Even when millions of pounds are spent over a number of years, it's next to impossible to cut the number of grey squirrels. This will lead to carnage in the countryside." - Ross Minett, director of Advocates for Animals
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A POLITICIAN'S plan to offer bounties for the capture or slaughter of grey squirrels will cause "carnage in the countryside", animal welfare groups warned last night.
Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser has introduced a motion in the Scottish Parliament, claiming a cull of grey squirrels is essential if the native red squirrel population is to be protected. He suggested a bounty of about 2-3 per squirrel could be paid, with hunters collecting their reward from police stations.
The grey squirrel, introduced to the UK from North America towards the end of the 19th century, has been vilified for endangering the existence of the indigenous red.
It has twice the bodyweight of its red cousin, takes most of the food shared by both species and carries a virus that harms red squirrels.
But Ross Minett, director of welfare group Advocates for Animals, said: "There is no scientific or ecological justification for this. Even when millions of pounds are spent over a number of years, it's next to impossible to cut the number of grey squirrels. This will lead to carnage in the countryside."
But Mr Fraser, the deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said: "Something has to be done to help protect the poor red, otherwise an iconic species will be wiped out. It may seem like a drastic step, but the seriousness of the current situation cannot be underestimated.
"Paying bounties to gamekeepers and others to eradicate grey squirrels in areas where they threaten reds would be a positive step to try to tackle this serious issue."
There are around 160,000 red squirrels in the UK, of which 75 per cent live in Scotland. They are outnumbered by greys by about 20 to one. This is not the first time the offer of a bounty has been used as an incentive to control the animals.
A grey squirrel bounty was introduced in the UK in 1932 by the Forestry Committee. The reward was 2.5 pence per tail.
The scheme stopped during the Second World War, but resumed again in the 1950s. It was abandoned in 1957.
Not everyone would be eligible to become a squirrel hunter, Mr Fraser said. "It will be strictly controlled," he insisted. "The last thing you want it kids running round with an airgun."
But Natalie Smart, of the SSPCA, backed the criticism of the plan. "Offering a monetary incentive to kill doesn't make good sense,'' she said.
"We do realise culls sometimes have to be used as a last resort because of conservation issues, but they should be government-backed, humane and properly monitored."
Ms Smart added she was concerned people wouldn't realise not everyone could take part and it would encourage people to kill squirrels in the hope of making a quick buck.
Last year, Advocates for Animals offered a 20 reward for every live hedgehog brought in prior to a hedgehog cull in the Western Isles. The rescued animals were relocated to the Scottish mainland.
Elly Hamilton, a red squirrel conservation officer from the Scottish Borders, said: "The problem with bounties is you can't guarantee where the squirrels come from.
"And people who are not trained might think it's a good idea to get involved. It has to be targeted control in key locations."