In December 2018 rescue centres that deal with “alien” species, such as the grey squirrel, received an email from Natural England, the licensing body, stating that their licences to keep and release these animals are going to be revoked at the end of March 2019, under the new Invasive Alien Species Order (Enforcement and Permitting) 2019.
A campaign was started to make rescue exempted from this legislation. The campaigners argue that rescue numbers are too small to make a difference to overall squirrel numbers, but very significant in terms of the compassion footprint of humanity. Furthermore, many of them believe that the environmental impact of grey squirrels is misrepresented in the policy-making process.
Urban Squirrels ran a parliamentary petition to make wildlife rescue exempt from the Invasive Alien Species Order. The petition gathered 60,000 signatures in six months, a very impressive result for a parliamentary petition, that only British citizens could sign.
Many organizations joined in with the campaigning. Animal Aid, Wildlife Aid Foundation, Secret World Rescue and Urban Squirrels are perhaps the most active. The RSPCA and the British Veterinary Zoological Society made supportive statements.
These organisations, as well as several other groups and many private individuals, wrote to Defra and contacted various MPs. Several questions on this matter were asked and answered in Parliament.
The press picked up the story, with articles appearing in The Times, The Mirror, The Independent, The Church Times, Vet Times, as well as several local newspapers and animal protection magazines.
By the beginning of March, the campaign achieved two significant concessions. The government announced that licences to keep will still be issued in future after all, and that the current keep and release licences are being extended till October.
The campaigners welcomed these steps, but pointed out that it is not enough to save grey squirrel rescue. If rescue centres are not allowed to release the animals they take in, they cannot continue their work. The “residential” places will soon be filled up, and they will be back to square one: having to turn away or kill the animals they are supposed to help.
The full text of the Order was published on March 11
At the end of July the campaigners won another reprieve – till December this time – as well as a government public consultation on the issue of “controlling invasive species”. The results of the consultation are due out soon.
On December 1 2019 the Order did come into force. Rescue centres can now apply for a licence to keep grey squirrels, but not to release them. In practice, it means the end of grey squirrel rescue, because the residential places fill up very quickly and we cannot take in new clients.
In a very disappointing move, many big wildlife rescue centres (including the ones who were very active in the campaign to begin with) decided not to apply even for a licence to keep, and introduced an automatic euthanasia policy for grey squirrels. This is a great shame, because even under current legislation they could at least save some lives.
At Urban Squirrels we have applied for a licence to keep. For legal reason, we have declared a news blackout for our rescue activities.
The campaign, however, continues.