Lottery boost to the grey squirrel fertility control programme

During Red Squirrel Awareness Week, 02-08 October 2023, the UK Squirrel Accord (UKSA) thanks the Red Squirrel Recovery Network (RSRN) partners for including an important trial in their exciting new project backed by The National Lottery Heritage Fund. UKSA will work with RSRN, the Animal and Plant Health Agency and The University of York on a focused trial to better understand how grey squirrel fertility control can be effectively delivered at a landscape scale. As well as community engagement activities aimed at raising awareness of fertility control as a method for grey squirrel management.

RSRN is a partnership project involving the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, Cumbria Wildlife Trust, Lancashire and Merseyside Wildlife Trust, Knowsley Safari and Southern Uplands Partnership in Scotland. This ambitious project brings together conservation partners and community groups across Southern Scotland and Northern England.

Alongside other important red squirrel conservation and engagement activities, the RSRN project will include a cross-border trial that will provide volunteers with skills and equipment to effectively deploy species-specific feeding hoppers. In future, these feeders will contain a bait with an oral contraceptive for the non-lethal management of grey squirrels. Data will also be collected to help optimise bait delivery methods. Activities for the trial will be defined over the coming development phase year and will be guided by the needs of the research and practitioners. It will then be delivered collaboratively during the full five-year project.

Widespread established invasive species, such as the grey squirrel, are particularly difficult to manage. We need to find new and innovative ways to reduce their populations and negative environmental and economic impacts. Fertility control is increasingly advocated around the world as a non-lethal method for managing wildlife populations. Public support for this work continues to grow as the science evolves and as new contraceptives become available.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services recently published results of its four-year assessment on invasive non-native species and their management. They found that invasive species play a key role in 60% of all plant and animal extinctions around the world. They also estimated that these species cost the global economy over $423 Billion a year, a figure which has quadrupled every decade since 1970.

Management of established invasive species is most effective when a range of methods are available. Fertility control should offer a less labour-intensive and more publicly acceptable option than current lethal methods. It could be used alone or to complement other methods to reduce grey squirrel densities. This will help protect the UK’s remaining red squirrels and newly planted broadleaf trees.

RSRN brings more hope to the work of dedicated volunteers and conservation organisations across many borders of this vital red squirrel area. UKSA will support this important project through match funding and engagement. As we celebrate red squirrels during this important awareness raising week, we take another step closer to red squirrel recovery across the UK.

Kay Haw, Director of the UK Squirrel Accord, said

“Collaborative landscape-scale action is needed to protect red squirrels and trees by effectively reducing grey squirrel numbers and their negative impacts. The Wildlife Trusts are important partners in the UK Squirrel Accord and we are delighted to contribute to a project that benefits the needs of two UK countries. We are grateful to The National Lottery Heritage Fund for supporting our work with money raised by National Lottery players to develop a grey squirrel fertility control option.”

Dr Giovanna Massei, Europe Director of the Botstiber Institute for Wildlife Fertility Control based at the University of York, said:

"I am thrilled to continue to work with UKSA and with the other project partners and to build on the research that UKSA has supported for years. This project will expand the scope of fertility control applications for grey squirrels to larger areas and it will also raise awareness about the use of this method in the context of red squirrel conservation"

Sarah Beatham, APHA Wildlife Ecologist, said:

“It is great to be part of such a large-scale collaborative project that is so important for ensuring the long-term survival of the red squirrel in the UK. This project will allow us to lay key foundations that will, in the future, support the effective delivery of contraceptives as an additional method for managing grey squirrel populations, to give the red squirrel the best chance of success.”

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Notes to editors: The UK Squirrel Accord (UKSA) is a UK-wide partnership of 45 leading conservation and forestry organisations, Government agencies and companies, with links to red squirrel community groups.

UKSA works collaboratively to preserve the UK’s wooded landscapes and associated biodiversity under the following aims to:

  • Secure and expand UK red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, populations beyond current thresholds
  • Ensure UK woodlands flourish and deliver multiple benefits for future generations of wildlife and people

Grey squirrels were intentionally introduced to sites in England and Ireland from 1876 to 1929. In 1930, their impacts on red squirrels and trees resulted in a ban on the importation and keeping of grey squirrels. They are now classed as invasive non-native species due to their negative impacts on red squirrels and woodland ecosystems.

The grey squirrel fertility control programme is a key area of work being funded by the UK Squirrel Accord and supporters and delivered by the Animal and Plant Health Agency. Currently in the research and development phase, it is hoped this non-lethal management method will offer an effective and less labour-intensive option for reducing grey squirrel numbers to protect red squirrels and young broadleaf trees.

About The National Lottery Heritage Fund

National Lottery Heritage Fund grant applications over £250,000 are assessed in two rounds. The Red Squirrel Recovery Network has initially been granted round one development funding of £158,600 by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, allowing it to progress with its plans. Detailed proposals are then considered by The National Lottery Heritage Fund at second round, where a final decision is made on the full funding award of £4,669,400

Using money raised by the National Lottery, we inspire, lead and resource the UK’s heritage to create positive and lasting change for people and communities, now and in the future.

Follow @HeritageFundUK on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #NationalLotteryHeritageFund

Useful links

UK Squirrel Accord website
Red Squirrel Recovery Network project
Grey squirrel fertility control research FAQs
IPBES report