A recent article in the Independent suggests that as a direct result of Brexit, it will no longer be legal to rehabilitate and release grey squirrels and muntjac deer. This change in regulations means that any rescued individuals will have to be euthanised. This is not always the case under current regulations, as at the moment it is possible for organisations to apply for a licence to rehabilitate and re-release them into the wild.
The suggestion that this change in policy is caused by Brexit is nonsense, and is merely a cheap shot to attract readers (not unlike what I’ve done here). The regulations are in fact part of the 2014 EU regulation on the prevention and management of the introduction of invasive alien species. Brexit can certainly be blamed for many things, but this is not one of them. Furthermore, it is not well covered in the Independent’s article, but it is actually already an offence to release grey squirrels into the wild in the UK, under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, so the new regulations are merely a tightening of the law, in not allowing any exceptions to this rule.
So what is an invasive alien species?
An alien species is any species of organism that is present in an area in which it is not native. Grey squirrels were introduced to the UK from North America in the late 19th century, and muntjacs were brought over from Asia in the early 20th century. An invasive species is any alien species that causes harm to the native ecosystem. Grey squirrels are one of the more high profile invasive species, as their introduction has led to the remarkable crash of the UK’s red squirrel population, with the majority of England’s red squirrel population being wiped out by greys since the Second World War. There are a number of other invasive species present in the UK, but the grey squirrel and muntjac are taking centre stage as they are the most likely to be taken in by wildlife rescue centres.
Why are grey squirrels and muntjacs bad for the environment?
The drastic decline of our native red squirrel is due to grey squirrels outcompeting them, and carrying the squirrelpox virus, which is deadly to reds. Grey squirrels also damage woodland by tearing the bark from trees. Muntjacs haven’t devastated other species in the dramatic fashion that grey squirrels have, but are also responsible for damage to woodlands, eating wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, that are vital to bird and butterfly populations.
What are the reasons for these new regulations?
The regulations have been brought in to help the UK commit to their pledge with the EU to conserve native wildlife and eradicate invasive species. However, I believe that these new laws are in reality pointless, as the current level at which grey squirrels and muntjac deer are released into the wild has very little affect on the populations of these species. It therefore also means that these direct releases are not likely to have much of a negative affect on the environment either. The only way the release of either species would have a major negative impact on the environment is if they were to be released in areas where they are not currently present, or in the case of grey squirrels, where they are present in close proximity to red squirrels. Although this may seem possible under the current regulations, there would be no government naive or stupid enough to grant a licence to release these invasive species in such sensitive areas. At least I hope there wouldn’t be!
Why would anyone want to release invasive species anyway?
It might seem strange that anyone would want to rescue and rehabilitate an invasive species, when they have historically caused so much damage to our biodiversity, but to many people grey squirrels and muntjac deer are a cherished part of their local ecosystem. Many people enjoy feeding squirrels in their local park, and I certainly enjoy observing the small family of muntjacs that visit my garden (except when they eat all the flowers and vegetables!). It is only natural then that someone would want to help a creature in distress that they see as a native species, even if it isn’t. It is this loss of the ability to help injured animals that people are angry about, with over 38,000 people signing a petition calling for these regulations to be scrapped.
Whether the cost of the rescue and rehabilitation of anything other than endangered species is worthwhile from a conservation perspective is up for debate, as the vast amounts of money needed to rehabilitate common animals could be used more effectively to help conserve threatened species. But it is certainly true that when people are able to make a difference to the life of one animal by rescuing it, their interest in nature is likely to grow, as is their desire to help conserve it.
Is there really a need for this change to the law?
Ultimately, these regulations are a way for the government to appear as if it is doing something to protect the environment, without actually spending any money or doing anything worthwhile. In my opinion it would be much better for the UK’s threatened species if the government pledged more money for active research and conservation, rather than picking on charities that are trying to help injured animals. I can understand why people feel as they do about these regulations, as it seems to be a decision devoid of compassion, but to me it just lacks ambition. How about we let people rescue the animals that they want to in areas where the damage is already done, and focus our efforts in a way that will help preserve what we have left?