There’s not much cuter than a baby squirrel — until they grow up to be invasive acorn hoarders that interfere with tree planting and, by extension, efforts to slow climate change. So, U.K. environment minister Lord Goldsmith has announced it’s time to put these squirrels on the pill.
And what a delicious oral contraceptive it will be. The plan is that grey squirrels will follow their noses into special squirrel-only feeding boxes containing contraceptive-spiked hazelnut spread. Even the most reckless breeders are likely to succumb to family planning when it tastes this good.
“We hope advances in science can safely help our nature to thrive, including through the humane control of invasive species,” the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told BBC News on Tuesday.
An estimated three million grey squirrels, along with their fellow invasive species, damage U.K. woodlands to the tune of £1.8 billion a year. Grey squirrels came to the U.K. from North America in the late 1800s. Since then, they’ve gone on a bark-stripping rampage. Their favorite targets are younger trees between 10 and 50 years old, especially ecologically important broad-leafed types such as oak. Grey squirrels also displaced native red squirrels. Only about 140,000 red squirrels remain in the U.K., according to The Wildlife Trusts.
Simon Lloyd, chief executive of the Royal Forestry Society, has accused grey squirrels of undermining efforts to combat global warming. New trees must be protected in order to “deliver the carbon capture or biodiversity objectives if grey squirrels cannot be controlled,” Lloyd told the Daily Telegraph. The Royal Forestry Society is one of 37 conservation and land management organizations that make up the UK Squirrel Accord (UKSA), which proposed the contraceptive strategy.
The plan has the royal okay. Prince Charles, a patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, wrote of Britain’s few surviving red squirrels, “These charming and intelligent creatures never fail to delight.” But grey squirrels? Not so charming.
UKSA has been investigating delivery methods for more than three years. In an East Yorkshire test last year, researchers added dye to the hazelnut bait that would cause squirrel hair to fluoresce in UV light. They were able to conclude that 90% of their test subjects visited the traps. UKSA is hoping to drastically reduce grey squirrel numbers without having to resort to shotguns or other lethal measures.
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