Fishing and Shooting: A fondness for grey squirrels

I must have filled in some form or other in a fit of public spiritedness because I now find I am an officially appointed grey squirrel dispatcher. This is the polite way of saying I am an approved killer. As I have never seen a grey squirrel round here, the rodents are safe. But should anyone else find one stuck in the bird feeder or attic and come over all funny at the thought at having to give it the chop I will be sent for to finish it off in a humane manner.

On the whole, letting off shotguns, even a small bore .410, in enclosed spaces is never a very good idea. We went after the neighbour's doos many years ago at harvest time because they were sitting in the barn rafters defecating all over the piles of barley (grain merchants get quite shirty these days) and blew a hole in the asbestos roof. An air rifle is a better bet.

It now looks as if the pine marten, a particularly vicious tree dweller and a cross between a mink and a polecat may be the secret weapon in the fight against greys. You may not know this but pine martens have been all but wiped out in England, mainly, it is thought, because they eat game bird eggs and the keepers down there have been ruthlessly efficient, added to loss of habitat. The usual.

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In Scotland our populations have survived, notably in the Highlands where they once ate a friend's only suit when they got into the house when he was away. Now it appears that where you get pine martens you don't get grey squirrels. Greys spend a lot of time on the ground, whereas the native reds, who you might think would also be prey for pine martens, tend to spend more time up trees so are less easily caught.

The other day someone "found" four pine martens that had fallen out of their trees and having presumably received written permission from Scottish Natural Heritage to interfere with a protected species, took them off to the SSPCA instead of leaving them to be carried back up the tree whence they had fallen, by their mothers. The SSPCA gave the little martens a home and white mice, or whatever you feed baby pine martens, twice a day and when they were old enough packed them off to Dumfriesshire to breed over the Border.

It does seem that the main purpose of this exercise is to repopulate England with pine martens.

They are, it is true, very sweet (look them up on YouTube) but as the RSPB knows only too well they have a catastrophic effect on ground nesting birds and notably the capercaillie at the Abernethy reserve.

Of course, if they do see off grey squirrels that, on the face of it, is rather a good thing. But I doubt that the good people of Cumbria and Northumberland, let alone the gamekeepers, will be overjoyed at this conservation gift which sooner rather than later will become a pest again and start eating all sorts of other blameless wildlife. Better than alien beavers I suppose.

This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday 09 January, 2010.