Killing for survival – squirrel management as a moral conservation dilemma

By Tina Christmann @tinachristmann

When I imagine species conservation, the first images that spring to mind are the preservation of pristine mountainous landscapes with their ancient trees, savannas with their wild animals, or coral reefs populated with a multitude of fishes through the creation of protected areas.

But have you ever heard of killing a species to ensure another species’ survival? If not, then you might be among the 95% UK citizens who are not aware of lethal control programmes for grey squirrels. What seems a dark side to nature conservation is a necessary evil that future conservationists will have to face, and is a daily practice in the UK, in order to re-establish the red squirrel, a native rodent to the British islands whose population numbers dropped close to extinction in the 20th century.

red and grey squirrel
Left picture: red squirrel (Seawhisper/Shutterstock), right grey squirrel (wikipedia)

I wanted to engage with this discomforting topic to challenge myself to think critically about my favourite animal and its impacts. In doing so I stumbled across an article with particularly unsettling descriptions of the actual process of killing and the approaches to killing:

“Trapped squirrels are killed by a shot to the head with an air pistol/rifle, or by cranial concussion. The latter involves transferring the squirrel to a hessian sack before delivering a forceful blow to the head with a heavy, blunt object (often a weighted wooden ‘priest’). The procedure is visceral and physical, and can be challenging and anxiety-inducing to perform (and indeed, to witness). Trapped squirrels are vocal and agitated, and may twitch, convulse and/or gasp following the strike.” (Crowley, Hinchliffe, & McDonald, 2018)

Tears flowing down my cheeks as I considered the reality of this daily practice (often paraphrased as “dispatching”), I asked myself how one justifies this cruel act towards a species and wanted to find out more about the deep roots of the problem and about alternative solutions.

The roots lie in the alarming decline of the red squirrel, a native UK-rodent that has always faced challenges against its survival through hunting pressure and deforestation. However, this tough, fluffy companion remained persistent until 1876, when nobility imprudently introduced the grey squirrel to the UK as an ornamental species to populate gardens and parks, which quickly expanded in the southern UK. This caused a creeping, but steady decline in red squirrel populations.

The main reason isn’t primarily the loss of habitat but the indirect competition for resources with the grey squirrels and the squirrelpox-virus they transmitted. To date about 140,000 red squirrels are left, mainly restricted to Scotland and Ireland, while the grey squirrel still flourishes with populations 18 times this. Grey squirrels are not only harmful to their red companions, but also for foresters as they damage growing trees by stripping off bark. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1930 that the multi-lateral damage of grey squirrels was recognised.

A red squirrel infected by the squirrel-pox virus (Northern Red Squirrels)

Ever since, grey squirrels have been actively managed in the UK, both inside red squirrel areas to protect remnant red squirrel populations, and outside to protect broadleaved forests from damage or simply for recreation.

Conventional “soft” conservation measures like preserving the reds’ favoured habitat or providing seed supply did not help much. A more radical approach was needed: lethal management – an ecological euphemism for squirrel-killing. A study found that forest and wildlife professionals, woodland owners, administrative officers and volunteers take part in the programme, which involves either shooting, poisoning or trapping. In regions where both squirrels occur, life traps are used and may represent the most discomforting of all killing practices. The practitioner must kill the squirrel afterwards, either by drowning, hitting or shooting, and exhibits an intimate connection to the act of killing without being able to walk away from death as in the case of death traps :

“Barry, a volunteer, explained why he preferred shooting over cranial dispatch: ‘You feel more detached … it sounds corny, but you go into the zone . it’s a target … you don’t even think that it’s an animal.’ – Tim (Crowley, Hinchliffe, & McDonald, 2018)

The Kania 2000 death trap (Grey Squirrel Control)

Practitioners of lethal squirrel management have different “modes of killing”. Some propagate a forest stewardship mode of killing, reasoning that pragmatic control is needed to protect forests and seeing squirrels as culpable pests. Others stand for a reparative/sacrificial mode of killing, aiming to recover red squirrels but still regarding grey squirrels as innocent sacrifices. Only few practitioners represent a categorical mode with the aim of grey squirrel eradication and an inherently undesirable view of grey squirrels. These views involve different preferred management methods.

I asked myself: “Could I, as a future conservationist, kill a squirrel either with traps, shots or blows, for the sake of the survival of another squirrel or for the sake of the forest? Are there not any other solutions?”

So far, it seems that the killing methods currently involved are the most effective, yet not the most socially accepted. A study found that those control methods which do not involve any direct killing (such as contraception and planting trees to limit available food) are the most acceptable, while lethal methods rank as the least acceptable. Current research focusses on the feasibility of fertility controls through vaccines. Another option explored is bio-control – the use of natural predators like the pine marten.

The establishment of the grey squirrel in the British Island (Alpha Science)

Society can learn a lot from this case. If we mess things up, by introducing foreign species into our landscapes, we will have to pay the price and spend an awful lot of money, manpower and emotion on controlling these species. Instead, let’s try to be more cautious, and prevent a lot of harm by being more sensitive in this hugely connected world.

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