Rarely has any animal species in these isles been subjected to such irrational loathing and pathological violence as the grey squirrel. Current authorised killing methods include poisoning, shooting, the smashing of drays and stamping on the young, and drawing the animals into a sack, after they've been cage-trapped, and then clubbing them to death.
Now the Sunday Times reports (Bolt from blue to end tale of grey squirrel, May 22) that the solution to the 'grey problem' could be provided by a baited device, affixed to an upright, that fires a metal bolt through the animal's head. We are told that the introduction of this sinister contraption into the British countryside will succeed where numerous other attempts to wipe out the grey have failed since the early 1930s. In fact, we have more grey squirrels in Britain than ever before.
Much of the reason we are expected to despise greys (who were imported from America some 140 years ago for their 'ornamental' value) is because they have supposedly stolen the territory of the cherished, native red squirrels, and lethally infected them with the parapox virus. Yet, between 1900 and 1925, it was the red we humans were slaughtering by the thousand - and for the same supposed environmental vices that were subsequently hung around the neck of the greys: reds were woodland pests who stripped bark, robbed birds' nests and raided gardens.
While the parapox virus has played its part in reducing red numbers, the source was not grey squirrels. The virus was scything through red populations in the first two decades of the last century in several parts of the country into which greys had never ventured. As for the greys' alleged devastation of British songbirds, in 2010 researchers from the British Trust for Ornithology and Natural England published the results of a study on the effect that grey squirrels were having on 38 woodland bird species. Taken in the round, no negative impact was found.
The truth, of course, is that we human beings are incomparably destructive when it comes to the natural world. But rather than face this awkward truth, we scapegoat, among other 'pests' and 'vermin', the robust, adaptable, intelligent and very appealing grey squirrel. Much of the anti-grey sentiment is whipped up by pheasant-shooting and forestry interests, on whose activities the greys dare to modestly intrude. The rest of us must resist their hateful propaganda, serving as it does as a prelude to the pitiless maiming and killing of animals whose presence in the British countryside we should be celebrating.