The Royal Forestry Society (RFS) is calling on the government and Forestry Commission England to put control of grey squirrels on a similar level of importance as that of tree diseases.

A grey squirrel
Grey squirrels are the greatest risk to our woodland heritage

It is pressing for more research, effective support for woodland owners and managers, and for a programme to increase public awareness of the threat to the health of our broadleaved woods caused by grey squirrels.

The call by the RFS – the longest-established membership organisation for woodland owners and managers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – follows an online survey which asked woodland owners and managers to rate the danger of grey squirrels to woodlands, to share their experiences of controlling grey squirrels and to suggest what support they need.
The survey was completed by 750 people, 60% of whom are woodland owners and 40% managers, consultants or agents. Their clear response was that grey squirrels represent the greatest threat to broadleaf woodlands, marginally ahead of tree diseases and well ahead of deer.
One respondent wrote: ‘I replanted the major part of my woodlands in 1987 with 80% English oak. The bark stripping by grey squirrels over those 26 years has seriously damaged an estimated 40% to 50% of the crop, in many cases fatally’.
The RFS says it would like to see more support for woodland owners in controlling grey squirrels and adapting woodland management practice, and for the lessons learned from collaborative approaches such as grey squirrel control groups within red squirrel areas and the work of the Deer Initiative applied more widely.
The survey results are being submitted by the RFS to Forestry Commission England’s review of its policy Grey squirrels and England’s woodlands – policy and action, and a copy has been sent to Environment Minister Owen Paterson.
‘Protecting the health of our woods is the government’s highest forestry policy priority, but compared with tree diseases, there is very little scientific research available on grey squirrel controls and very little support for woodland owners to tackle the problem,’ says RFS development director Simon Lloyd.  Woodland owners and managers need financial and practical support to help manage this threat to the health of our woods, he adds. ‘This is not only about keeping grey squirrel numbers under control where trees are most vulnerable to damage, but also adapting woodland management to reduce the risk’.
To date, says Lloyd, the focus of financial support for squirrel control has been on protecting red squirrel habitats, and this has done little to prevent grey squirrel damage to broadleaved woods escalating elsewhere in the country.
From April until the end of July (early September in high-risk years) grey squirrels strip bark around a trunk, preventing the trees from growing properly. Up to 5% of damaged trees may die and many more will have degraded timber value through stem deformation, rot and broken tops.Planted or naturally regenerated trees aged between 10 and 40 years, especially sycamore, beech, oak, sweet chestnut, pine, larch and Norway spruce, are most vulnerable to damage. Additionally, grey squirrel carry a squirrelpox virus which proves fatal to red squirrels.

‘Without adequate protection and adaptive management, many broadleaved woods planted in recent years risk ending up as scrub rather than reaching their potential for timber, or landscape and habitat value, and that is not an effective use of grants used to help plant them,’ says Lloyd. ‘The high risk of squirrel damage to broadleaved species such as oak and beech is a disincentive to planting them. Ash, which is relatively resistant to squirrel damage, is no longer a viable alternative. Our woodland heritage is therefore put at risk because of the grey squirrel.’
The RFS supports the work of the European Squirrel Initiative and will work with government and FC England to develop a policy that properly reflects the threat posed by grey squirrels and supports woodland owners to control grey squirrel populations.

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