The subject of grey squirrels has come up a few times on this blog. Yesterday I met a couple of representatives of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust. We had a very good discussion.
To tell you the truth, I was a bit nervous about it, as I was a little worried that we might be asked to get out our guns and start blasting away at grey squirrels all over the UK. And that fear was based on previous discussions on this subject with others. But yesterday's talk was very sensible - and actually quite exciting.
There is no doubt that the decline of the red squirrel is caused by the non-native grey squirrel. A combination of competition for resources and the spreading of a disease that kills off the reds cause the reds to disappear.
And the decline of the red squirrel has been every bit as dramatic as the decline of the corncrake - both have been lost from huge areas of the country where they were common at the beginning of the last century. Now because the corncrake's decline has been pretty much entirely caused by land use changes our successful programme to reverse the decline has focussed on working with land owners and managers to provide the right habitat. For red squirrels there is plenty of suitable habitat but it is currently occupied by disease-carrying grey squirrels. So any red squirrel conservation programme has to deal with the greys - and since they cannot be chatted up and persuaded to move that means either moving them or killing them (to put it bluntly!)(although the possibility of feeding them sterilising drugs is always raised as a distant possibility).
Now my problem with previous discussions about this subject has been that the enthusiasm for killing grey squirrels has seemed to me to overwhelm any thoughts about whether that killing would actually do any good for the red squirrel. We had a very different and thoughtful discussion yesterday.
I learned about the success of conservation action on Anglesey where a few red squirrels survived but greys were taking over, before a combination of a cull of greys and topping up of the red population seems to have been very successful.
A successful conservation programme for red squirrels needs to protect the habitat of red squirrels where they still thrive (places like our own nature reserve at Abernethy which is a great place to see red squirrels), stopping the spread of grey squirrels and the transmission of squirrel pox disease (this has to be targetted at the Scottish/English border and we are cooperating with this work on our nature reserves in the north of England and south Scotland) and the setting up of new populations in former parts of the range (maybe there are some RSPB nature reserves which could play a part here). This programme is not easy, nor will success be achieved quickly - but there is a rational basis for effective action here. And that's what excited me about the discussion. I suppose that through not knowing enough about the details I had almost written off any prospects of success with reversing the decline of red squirrels - but yesterday's discussion brought me up to speed and convinced me that progress was possible (even though not assured!).
I was also glad that the impacts of grey squirrels on woodland birds were not overstressed. Certainly greys eat birds' eggs and nestlings - but then so do reds! And the evidence that greys have been important in the declines of any of our declining woodland species is meagre (despite people, including us, having looked quite hard). Many of the declining woodland birds are declining right across Europe - and there aren't grey squirrels anywhere else in Europe apart from northen Italy.
So I was excited by the discussion we had with the Red Squirrel Survival Trust and we look forward to working with them and all other rational red squirrel conservationists. So enthusiastic was I that I talked to some colleagues about it over lunch and am grateful to one of them for pointing out this interesting report, that pine martens may help stop the spread of grey squirrels. Of course, pine martens were once very common across much of the UK and it is possible that their persecution and removal created the conditions under which greys found it much easier to spread. Interesting!
This jet changes everything is the modest claim of an advert in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review.
One of the things that I do to try to stimulate my brain (OK - maybe unsuccessfully!) is, every now and then, to buy a random magazine off a rack, one that I don't necessarily expect to interest me, and see what it contains. It's not a sure-fire winner, but it is how I came to be a subscriber to HBR because I discovered a lot of interesting articles.
But this month an advert caught my eye. Apparently the Embraer Phenom 300 changes everything because it only costs $3,519 per hour, cruises at 518mph and carries seven passengers. Well, I'm pretty sure that this won't change my life. But my first hope when I read the headline was that this was the greenest plane yet invented - that it uses less fuel and flies much more efficiently. Maybe it does - but that isn't how it is being sold.
There's a long way to go before we are truly in the mindset that will minimise our damage to life on Earth.
Andorra, the Vatican City and the USA are the only nations on Earth not to be full parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity now that Iraq and Somalia have ratified.
What can one say?
What do Andorra, the Vatican City and the USA have in common?
I spent some of yesterday evening sitting under a dinosaur's tail.
Yes, you've guessed, I was in the Natural History Museum and listening to Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Defra, give the annual Darwin lecture.
The evening was a celebration of Darwin (whose bicentenary it is this year (and whose On the Origin of Species was published 150 years ago)), a celebration of the Darwin Initiative (which funds expertise-transfer on biodiversity from the UK to other countries) and a celebration of biodiversity itself.
Mr Benn spoke very well. He didn't say anything (bar one thing, see below) that I haven't heard him say before but don't get me wrong, I don't tire of hearing him speak about the natural environment because he speaks with passion, knowledge and conviction.
I was sitting next to a lady from a large financial company and rather mischievously asked her whether she'd be voting Labour after hearing Mr Benn speak. She smiled, rolled her eyes, and said no but then surprised me by saying that she would think about it if Mr Benn were standing for Prime Minister because she thought that he was an admirable politician.
One of Mr Benn's best phrases, which I first heard him use in a speech in Cambridge a while ago:
“The truth is that the great challenges before us – our changing climate, the security of our food supplies, human development and biodiversity loss, are bound up together. They are as separate only as the fingers of a single human hand are separate. It is how they work together that makes them so special.
That phrase is almost a definition of sustainable development. It is joined up thinking. Will it lead to joined up action?
Mr Benn announced, so this was the completely new bit, that the group which will look at ecological networks and what extra is needed to join existing sites of high nature value together, will be chaired by Prof Sir John Lawton FRS. Sir John is one of the UK's leading environmental scientists (and an ex-chair of RSPB Council - and a keen and knowledgeable birder to boot!) and we'll be bending his ear on this subject if he'll let us!