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MP calls for action to protect Formby's red squirrels

Formby MP Bill Esterson praised the work of the National Trust and called for Government funding to help protect the UK's red squirrel population in a debate in Parliament highlighting the plight of the under-threat species.

The MP also applauded the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and the Woodland Trust for their work in helping the vulnerable red squirrel population to flourish.

Mr Esterson called on the Government to ensure that any forthcoming Environment Bill provides a strong, independent regulatory framework that provides the highest protections for red squirrels and other animals.

The MP said in the Westminster Hall debate: "I have two asks in this debate. The first is for funding for control and protection work, including spreading the word about red squirrels. They do not often bite. They are a fabulous part of our natural world in the UK.

"We need to raise awareness and provide support to prevent the spread of grey squirrels and disease.

"Secondly, we need a robust framework in the Environment Bill. There are 17 strongholds for this iconic British animal. The red squirrel deserves our full support, but it needs action, not words."

The MP said measures to protect the red squirrel population needed to be evidence-based and more research may be needed. The experimental introduction of the weasel-like pine marten in some areas had shown signs of success in controlling greys, but more evidence was needed due to the risks of the pine marten killing red squirrels. He said: "Control of greys is a real problem. In Formby in 2007-08, squirrel pox led to the deaths of 85% of red squirrels in the area. Thanks to the brilliant work of the National Trust and the many local volunteers, there has been a good recovery, but I am sad to report what has been described as an “intense burst” of red squirrel deaths in Formby recently. The Wildlife Trust is currently testing to see whether squirrel pox is the cause.

"The Woodland Trust briefing made the point that the introduction of pine martens as a natural predator against the greys has seen early signs of success.

"I understand that that is also the case around the country. Because the greys are slower, the pine martens are more likely to attack and catch them.

"As the reds are faster, nimbler and smaller, they are more likely to escape, so natural predation is effectively being used to control the greys and protect the reds."

The MP said the Environment Bill was an opportunity to protect red squirrel habitats but questioned whether the regulator the law would create post-Brexit would be truly independent. He said: "Finally, I want to turn to the Environment Bill. Protections of habitat are crucial, as we have discussed. The proposed Office for Environmental Protection will have responsibility for monitoring, and it is vital that the regulatory framework is fit for purpose once we leave the EU.

"Currently, the European Commission exercises influence and power in an effective way. The current proposals suggest that the Office for Environmental Protection will sit with the Government and will not have the independence that the European regulatory arrangements give.

"Concerns have been raised about that level of independence and whether the regime will be sufficiently robust to maintain the necessary oversight.

"We need a little more detail from the Minister and the Secretary of State in the part of the Bill that is yet to be published, with tangible and clear targets for restoring the natural environment to support red squirrels and other species."

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