Grey squirrels in the UK to be fed contraceptive pills to reduce their numbers

A government-approved scheme to see if oral contraception can be used to cut the number of Britain’s grey squirrels is producing hopeful results, researchers have said.

Lord Benyon, the environment minister, described invasive grey squirrels as “pests” which caused “untold damage in the British countryside”.

He said a new way could be found to deal with them through work being done by the UK Squirrel Accord (UKSA) and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha).

Lord Benyon said that “important research on oral contraception shows promising signs that could help to eradicate the grey squirrel in the UK in a non-lethal way, as well as helping to recover our beloved red squirrel“.

Researchers say birth control can make male and female greys infertile – and should be ready to use in two years.

The species was brought from North America in the 19th century, but they are known to strip bark from trees to allow the squirrel to access the sap beneath.

It is now estimated there are 2.7million grey squirrels in the UK

They target trees aged up to 50 years old, and their favourites are oak, beech, sweet chestnut and sycamore.

UKSA-funded laboratory trials have been looking into an oral contraceptive as a way to manage grey squirrels, along with special feeding sites that can only be accessed by them.

Progress has been made in the effort to find ways to isolate the squirrels so they may then be able to take the contraceptive, researchers said.

Apha says it has a feeder with a weighted door that excludes most other wildlife, while allowing more than 70 per cent of local grey squirrel populations to get in and eat from them.

Apha is testing different methods of keeping red squirrels out of the feeders, so contraceptives could be used in areas where there are both types of squirrel.

Body weight could be key to helping to distinguish between greys and reds, according to the research, which currently does not use the contraceptive in the natural landscape.

Further testing and landscape-scale field trials are being carried out.

UKSA now has the funds to cover the research of the grey squirrel fertility control project.

Source – Mirror