Henry V had the Battle of Agincourt, Winston Churchill had the Battle of Britain and Prince Charles now has...the Battle of the Gray Squirrels? According to Ben Webster at The Times, the current Prince of Wales and potential future monarch has given his blessing to a project that would dose the little mammals with contraceptives in an effort to drastically reduce their numbers.
It’s not just some royal vendetta against small, furry critters. Erik Stokstad at Science reports that the Eastern gray squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, native to North America, was introduced to the British Isles about 140 years ago. Since then, they have become pests, digging up gardens and killing trees by chewing around their bases. They have also outcompeted the native red squirrels in some areas, and worse, spread a disease called Parapoxvirus. While gray squirrels are immune to the disease, reds are not—according to the latest census, their numbers have dropped from about 3.5 million in the 1950s to about 135,000 today, surviving mostly in Scotland and the north of England. Gray squirrels, on the other hand, outnumber red squirrels by roughly 10 to 1 reports Stokstad.
Prince Charles is a big fan of the red squirrel, and has even proposed that the little animal be recognized as the official mascot of the U.K. He even aspires to have one as a companion at his retreat in Scotland. “I put nuts in the lobby and leave the door open and the red squirrels come up the steps into the house,” he told The Telegraph. "Very often you get four or five running around inside the house, chasing each other to get at the nuts. My great ambition is to have one in the house, I hate to tell you. Sitting on the breakfast table and on my shoulder!”
So it’s no surprise that he hosted a meeting of squirrel conservationists and backed the U.K.’s Animal and Plant Health Agency's pilot plan. The agency hopes to soon begin experiments luring gray squirrels into special traps baited with globs of the chocolate hazelnut spread Nutella spiked with GonaCon, an oral contraceptive shown to be 90 percent effective in rats. The traps are designed to be too strong to allow red squirrels and other small mammals like dormice and voles to enter. Webster reports that the APHA will give the program a test run to make sure it works and that it only impacts gray squirrels. If it is a success, they hope to spread the Nutella traps throughout the country within five years.
Lord Kinnoull, chairman of the UK Squirrel Accord, a multi-agency group that coordinates the fight against gray squirrels in the U.K., tells Webster that if the project works, it could reduce squirrel populations by 70 to 90 percent in four years. “It is the most exciting prospect I have seen [for controlling greys]. I don’t harbour a great extermination instinct but I am interested in protecting our broadleaf trees and there being red squirrels around for my children to see,” Kinnoull tells Webster. “In order to do that we have to reduce the grey population very substantially and this will be a very important weapon in the armoury.”
If it works, it will be much easier than the 18 years it took to eradicate gray squirrels from the Island of Anglesey off the coast of Wales. That island is now considered the first area of the nation to eradicate the gray squirrel, and the population of red squirrels has risen from just 40 in 1998 to around 700 today.