We are more than half-way through over-wintering our autumn babies, who were too young to be released on the wrong side of winter, but the coldest days of the year have only just started. The squirrels staying here would be very grateful, if they thought in those terms, for the warm nest-boxes and plentiful food. But they will be equally grateful for the big wide world when the time comes to release them at the end of March. They get fresh twigs in their cages every day, and I wonder whether they can tell, by the condition of the buds, that spring will happen one day? As it is, they spend their day chasing each other around the cages, rearranging their nut supplies and chewing everything: toys, deer antler, mineral blocks, log perches, nest boxes – you name it, squirrel teeth can be used on it. As rodents, they have to keep chewing to trim their teeth. They also remember to take time to relax, and, when they do so, they groom each other in the most endearing way. (No, they do not come into sexual maturity for a few months yet.)
The campaigning activity on the part of those on two legs is very intense. As you may remember, at the end of December last year Natural England declared its intention to withdraw the licences from all rescue groups that deal with “alien” species. The decision is due to come into effect at the end of March and is based on new Invasive Alien Species legislation, a translation into British law of relevant EU regulations. We have been campaigning to make rescue exempt from this legislation, because we do not import or breed these animals, but take them from the wild in the interest of their welfare and return them where they came from.
The petition on this matter has gathered over 40,000 signatures, which is a very good result for a parliamentary petition. At 10,000 the government responded, with what was essentially a non-response. Fortunately, a lot of signatories complained to the Petitions Committee about this, and the response has been sent back to the government with a “do better” note.
The campaign has been supported by major organizations, most notably Wildlife Aid, home of TV Wildlife SOS and Animal Aid. The RSPCA (go figure!) and the British Veterinary Zoological Society have also made supportive statements. The issue has been featured in The Independent, as well as the Veterinary Times and several local papers.
As a result of several rescue groups writing to the MPs (and my son Jonny carrying a very heavy sack to the post office) three written parliamentary questions have been submitted. What we need now is for the MPs to raise an objection when the new legislation is presented in Parliament. It is known as a Statutory Instrument and will just go through without a vote unless there are objections. We are encouraging people to write to their MPs on this matter. Fingers crossed for those objections!
The over-wintering squirrels are thriving and doing whatever the squirrel equivalent is for counting days before release. When the time comes, we will transport them to the sites where they are going to live in the wild and set them up there in the release cages. They will stay in these cages for a couple of weeks, getting used to the outside temperature changes, the sights, smells and sounds of their new forever homes. They will also get to meet the wild birds and squirrels – and, yes, the predators (cats and foxes) from the safety of being behind the strong mesh of the cages. When the time comes for them to venture out, a small trap door will be opened at the top of the cages, and they will come and go as they please. The cage will stay on site for them to make use of for as long as they want to. Typically, they stop sleeping in it after a few days, but come back to the same spot for food for as long as it is on offer. We generally ask the owners of the garden or the land to continue to give supplementary feeding for the first year after release, and supply the nuts if needed.
The advocacy is more active than ever, since we are now fighting for the very survival of grey squirrel rescue. As you know, Natural England announced their decision to withdraw all our licences after the end of March this year. The campaign that followed the decision included a parliamentary petition bit.ly/SquirrelPetition , letters to Defra, Natural England and MPs, press releases and leafletting (more than 6,000 leaflets sent out to be placed in rescue centres, vet surgeries and vegan businesses), and a “tweetstorm” on February 28 that sent our hash-tag #CompassionIsNotACrime trending in the UK.
There has now been extensive press coverage of the draft legislation and the campaign. The Times, The Mirror, The Church Times, The Independent, as well as several local newspapers, carried articles about the issue. You can read the them here is you are interested. https://www.urbansquirrels.co.uk/invasive-alien-species-order-2019-press-coverage/
We have achieved two very important concessions. One is the promise of management measure licences to keep grey squirrels in future. The other is the extension of current licences to keep and release until October.
The law itself (Invasive Alien Species Order 2019, still in draft form) is to be presented before the Commons soon, and we are still campaigning very hard to make rescue exempt from it. It is good that we can now rear 2019 babies in peace, but October will come round eventually, and, unless the legislation is amended, we will not be able to release out squirrels any more, which will effectively mean an end to rescue. So, although there are positive developments to report, the fight is still very much on.
March is one of the busiest months for the rescue, because it can see an overlap between the release of the over-wintered youngsters and the arrival of new babies. This year this scenario played out in full. Fortunately, at the time of writing, we have all the squirrels getting ready for life in the wild on the release sites, in the release cages. The little door to the big wide world will not be opened for another week or so, but the highly stressful (because of the danger of escape) work of moving and settling them is done.
And, in the meantime, new babies are coming in. We have two sets of three little ones in residence. The names in one group are Tony, Defra and Juniper – I had to! There have been challenges, such as a stomach virus, but all-in-all life is good at the moment. All the little ones have opened their eyes now, so the night feed is dropped, it is just five times a day now, from 8 a.m. till midnight.
A lovely lady from Japan who is studying film-making at the Royal College of Arts has been following our progress, filming (the rather chaotic) process of setting up cages at a release site and (the far more relaxed) process of feeding and toileting the tiny ones.
We have, as you would expect, continued to campaign very actively against the new Invasive Alien Species legislation that would effectively outlaw grey squirrel rescue in the UK. Our following on the social media is continuing to grow, and there have been a couple of mainstream media interviews, though only one of them resulted in an actual publication https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/17541183.invasive-squirrels-face-tougher-new-rules-over-rescues/?fbclid=IwAR27ijfwZ2ZyMxfhgizKYMEzcXhfiby_m2KgWIkbC_fsW2-mX8J4QWHHoo4
Our letter in defence of grey squirrels was also published in the paper version of the Daily Mail.
Urban Squirrels supplied leaflets and a briefing to the wonderful Merseyside Animal Rights Campaigns, who managed to have two (!) meetings of murderous conservationists (the ones who kill grey squirrels in a misguided attempt to help red ones) cancelled. Their success was covered in the local press.
Good old charity stalls have not been forgotten either. On the 2nd of March we ran a stall at the Ealing Animal Charities Fair, where we raised some much-needed funds and had many interesting conversations, including one with the local MP.
The fight for grey squirrel rescue continues, though April, one of the two peaks of the breeding season, will be mostly about babies.