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Anger as Suffolk MP backs controversial grey squirrel law

PUBLISHED: 17:26 26 February 2019

Therese Coffey, Suffolk Coastal MP, welcomed the announcement saving Rock Barracks, Woodbridge Picture: CHRIS McANDREW/UK PARLIAMENT

Therese Coffey, Suffolk Coastal MP, welcomed the announcement saving Rock Barracks, Woodbridge Picture: CHRIS McANDREW/UK PARLIAMENT

Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

A Suffolk wildlife sanctuary has criticised government plans to curb the population of non-native species by forbidding rescue centres from releasing sick animals back into the wild.

Carol Harris, founder of Jaybeths Animal Sanctuary near Haverhill Picture: JOSEPHINE PATTERSONCarol Harris, founder of Jaybeths Animal Sanctuary near Haverhill Picture: JOSEPHINE PATTERSON

The new law is being backed by Suffolk Coastal MP and junior environment secretary Therese Coffey, a move that has sparked backlash among campaigners.

As it stands, wildlife sanctuaries require a licence to re-release animals from invasive species, such as grey squirrels and muntjac deer, once they have recovered.

The order, which takes effect on March 29, will revoke these licences – meaning rescue centres will face turning sick animals away, or caring for them for the rest of their natural lives.

Dr Coffey, parliamentary under-secretary for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), said in a written answer that grey squirrels and muntjac deer are “highly invasive species” which can cause “significant impacts on domestic ecosystems and protected species”.

“The UK is committed to reducing the impacts of invasive non-native species within our borders,” she said.

“While the rescue of wildlife will not be illegal under the order, the re-release of listed invasive species that have been taken from the wild will not be permitted.

“Neither grey squirrel nor muntjac deer are protected in the UK and both are highly invasive species which cause significant impacts on domestic ecosystems and protected species. Grey squirrels also have a negative impact on our forestry.”

The move has sparked backlash among animal lovers across the country – with a petition calling on the government to make grey squirrels exempt from the order already at more than 45,000 signatures.

A parliamentary debate will be triggered in the event 100,000 signatures are reached.

Carol Harris, founder of Jaybeths Animal Sanctuary near Haverhill, claims it is “totally wrong” to judge grey squirrels and muntjac deer as less worthy of freedom, arguing “mankind can certainly do more damage than them”.

Ms Harris, who has voluntarily tended to sick animals of all kinds for four decades, acknowledged that muntjac deer strip the bark off trees with their teeth and horns, and grey squirrels can be a pest in parks and other public spaces.

Yet she claims the idea that the animals are destructive is “an illusion”.

“I think it is totally wrong to judge the grey squirrels, the muntjac deer and any other creatures,” she said.

“They are entertaining, they are very sweet – they are not a danger to trees any more than mankind.”

The RSPCA has also expressed serious concerns about what it calls “unnecessary destruction” of non-native species, arguing the new law will make “little or no difference” to the wider population of grey squirrels or muntjac deer.

“The RSPCA is extremely worried that this new law relating to non-native species will result in injured animals such as grey squirrels and muntjac deer being put to sleep rather than rehabilitated and released back into the wild,” a spokeswoman said.

“While the new legislation will still allow alien species found trapped but uninjured to be released in situ, those that are injured and then rehabilitated will need to be kept captive for the rest of their natural life – or be put to sleep.

“Vets and RSPCA staff who dedicate their lives to rehabilitating wildlife – along with animal-loving members of the public – will be upset we can no longer help those animals.

“While we support some aspects of this legislation as it prohibits the trade in, and keeping of species like racoons, racoon dogs and coatis, it will also result in the removal of licences in England that currently allow the release of rehabilitated grey squirrels and muntjac.

“This will mean the unnecessary destruction of animals which could otherwise have been rehabilitated and returned to the wild.

“The proposed new law will make little or no difference to the wider population of grey squirrels or muntjacs, nor will it alter the impact of these species in the wild.”

DEFRA has denied allegations that euthanasia will be used on the sick animals, clarifying the order dictates only that the animals must not be released back into the wild.

A spokesman said: “It is completely untrue to suggest the environment secretary has given an order to terminate these animals.

“The order prevents the release of these animals back into the wild to help protect the endangered red squirrel, with only 15,000 left in England.

“Invasive non-native species, including the grey squirrel, not only challenge the survival of our rarest species but damage some of our most sensitive ecosystems, costing the economy more than £1.7billion per year.”

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