European Squirrel Initiative (ESI)
AT OUR FIELD WEEKEND
Miles Barne, Chairman of the European Squirrel Initiative, was invited to talk to our members and their guests on the work of ESI.
Standing in the glorious Bowhill woodlands, Miles gave us an excellent talk and explained how Woodland Heritage support and funds, provided in the past, had been used by his charity.
We heard how this important initiative has progressed and reached another milestone in its development.
It was therefore most reassuring that our assembled Members later requested that Woodland Heritage Trustees should further support ESI in their valuable work towards solving the Grey Squirrel problem.
Anyone perusing 1960s issues of the Quarterly Journal of Forestry will immediately be struck by how little seems to have changed when it comes to grey squirrels. Our fathers were expressing the same anger and despair we hear today. The grey squirrel remains in the ascendancy despite the puny attempts of man to stop him. The prospect for woodland managed for timber seems as bleak as ever and the red squirrel stares into oblivion.
But there is something new. Foresters are no longer alone. After habitat loss, invasive alien species are now recognised to be the next greatest cause of local extinctions. Rabbits and cats from Europe have damaged ecosystems in Australia; Australian possums cause havoc in New Zealand forests; South American coypu cause problems in the waterways of Europe and alien rats have decimated indigenous wildlife on remote oceanic islands. There is therefore increasing international interest in protecting biodiversity from invasive aliens and scientists in New Zealand, Australia and the United States are working to find new methods to control or eradicate these unwanted visitors who stay.
One such method is immuno-contraception (IMC), a technology which uses antigens to stimulate a desired response in the body’s immune system. In this way, it is possible to prevent animals from breeding. There is therefore a potential to control or eradicate populations of pest mammals without actually killing them.
Market research shows that over 60% of the British public would support the eradication of grey squirrels if the method was non-lethal. (Omnibus Survey 2006)
Europe is host to some fifteen pest mammals – many of which are rodents- including a number of ground and arboreal squirrel species, rats, mice, muskrats and coypu. If the technology could be developed successfully for the grey squirrel, it should be possible to adjust it for use on the coypu or the rat.
This greatly strengthens the case for funding research here.
So we might yet see red squirrels back in our woods and urban parks; and walk beneath unmutilated Chiltern Beech; and listen again to the deafening dawn chorus our parents knew before the grey squirrel invaded this green and pleasant land.
Dear Woodland Heritage,
I write to thank you for the grant to help fund the employment of a research assistant. In the event, we were presented with the opportunity of retaining Professor Andy Peters who is a very experienced immunologist.
Professor Peters joined ESI in August on a part time basis. His first assignment was to assess the prospects for the three principal forms of immuno-contraception. He has selected two: GnRH and sperm antigens. His report will be available shortly.
He is presently designing a research programme and identifying scientists who would form an international consortium to bid for European funding to develop and test these technologies.
We are in contact with DG’s Research and Environment who are the main sources of funding under various programmes. The predictive mapping exercise we commissioned last year (the spread of grey squirrels from Italy into the rest of Europe) has moved the issue up the agenda in Brussels.
Thank you again.