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‘I killed 300 squirrels in four years’

Ian Glendinning has worked as a police officer for 32 years, but these days he is targeting a very different type of offender.

This one has a large, gray, bushy tail and has moved inexorably north through England over the past century, helping to wipe out its smaller red cousin.

But the gray squirrel has met a determined foe in Mr Glendinning and a small group of pensioners in a remote corner of Northumberland.

“I’ve probably killed about 300 people in the last four years,” he says.

“I don’t get any pleasure from doing it, but it’s a choice. We can have red or gray – we can’t have both.”

A red squirrel posing on a rockA red squirrel posing on a rock

Red squirrels in England are mainly found in Northumberland and Cumbria (Ian Glendinning)

Mr Glendinning is chairman of Northern Red Squirrels, an organization made up of groups trying to defend the region’s few red wines, mainly in Cumbria and Northumberland.

He also runs the Coquetdale Squirrel Group, which watches over around 20,000 hectares of land near his home in the Northumberland National Park.

“It started around 2019 when I started seeing more and more red squirrels in my garden, but I soon realized this was because they were being driven out of nearby woodlands by the oncoming grays,” he says.

“I thought something had to be done.”

He leads a group of retirees who have installed specialized traps that alert them immediately, via email and text message, when they are triggered.

This means that the fungus is trapped for only a short time before being shot or killed by “cranial dispatch,” a sharp blow to the head that acts immediately.

A photo of a cage with two people talking behind itA photo of a cage with two people talking behind it

Gray squirrels are captured in cages that alert the group as soon as they jump up (BBC)

The larger and more aggressive gray squirrel is native to North America and is classified as an invasive, non-native species and it is not illegal to kill them.

It carries smallpox but is not affected by it, causing red squirrels to die slowly and painfully.

“The majority of people who think what we do is cruel have never seen a red squirrel die from smallpox in two weeks,” says Glendinning.

“It’s just a gruesome death.”

Gray squirrels not only threaten red squirrels, they also cause damage to forests.

The financial cost of debarking trees is estimated at £37 million per year in England and Wales alone.

Most conservation organizations operating in Northumberland and Cumbria either cull the gray squirrels themselves or allow others to do so on their land.

But the charity Animal Aid is against it, saying there is no excuse for killing one animal to increase the number of others.

Campaign manager Fiona Pereira calls the culling of gray squirrels ‘indefensible’.

“There are still healthy numbers of red wines in mainland Europe, which makes the motivation to kill gray wines in Britain even more unjustified,” she says.

Natalia Doran feeds a small gray squirrel with a syringe Natalia Doran feeds a small gray squirrel with a syringe

Natalia Doran, who runs Urban Squirrels in London, believes it is wrong to take the lives of the grays to save the reds (Natalia Doran)

Natalia Doran lives in London and runs the charity Urban Squirrels. She takes in and cares for injured gray squirrels, but because it is illegal to release them, she keeps them at home.

She now has 15 living in two bedrooms and aviaries in the garden and says killing gray squirrels is “not the same as removing weeds”.

“There is an alien bad/native good story, but another species that is not native could ultimately be better suited to the current UK habitat,” she says.

“It’s nice to have red squirrels, but not if we have to kill others.”

Pine marten hangs on the tree Pine marten hangs on the tree

Reintroducing pine martens to parts of Britain could help stabilize red squirrel populations (2020VISION/Devon Wildlife Trust/PA)

A natural predator, or science, may soon provide a more acceptable solution for those opposed to culling.

Conservation efforts have allowed the pine marten to gain a foothold in southern Britain and in the Kielder Forest in Northumberland.

They predate all squirrels, but red squirrels, which are smaller and faster, are more likely to avoid them.

There is increasing evidence from Scotland and Northern Ireland that pine martens are having a positive impact on red squirrel populations.

There is also hope that research into gene editing and targeted oral contraception could limit gray populations.

A red squirrel looking into a camera A red squirrel looking into a camera

King Charles is known to love red squirrels and is patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust (Ian Glendinning)

But for Mr Glendinning, that will all be too much in the future to help the red squirrels that play in his garden.

“They are still there – mainly thanks to four retirees,” he says.

“But if we don’t do what we’re doing, in a few years there will be no red squirrels in Northumberland.

“They are our native species, they have been here since the Ice Age and if we don’t stand up for them, who is going to?”

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