Separating fact from fiction: removing non-native species

The UK can elimate non-native species such as grey squirrels, says James Russell, who is leading efforts to remove invasive predators in New Zealand.

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Grey squirrels are a non-native species in the UK

Grey squirrels are a non-native species in the UK © Pauline Lewis / Getty

 

What are you doing in New Zealand?

We are commited to eliminating all possums, rats and stoats by 2050. These introduced species threaten our native wildlife – endemic birds, especially – and cost our economy NZ$70m (£40m) every year.

 

How?

We already know how to remove these animals from small islands, so it’s partly about scaling up our efforts. But we must also move beyond conservation as purely the responsibility of the government, which only manages a third of our land area – two thirds is privately owned. We need to come up with new ways to control them, too.

 

What sort of ways?

New poisons, baits and traps, but we are developing genetic engineering solutions, too – one idea is to disrupt the gene that controls reproduction and spread it through the entire population. This isn’t as scary as it sounds because we’ve done gene manipulation through selective breeding for many years. We are also looking for ‘reversibility’, so that you can undo something if it's found to be harmful.

 

Could we do this here?

There’s no reason why not – look at the work you are doing in the Outer Hebrides, where you are ridding the Uists of non-native hedgehogs. Again, it’s partly a question of scaling up those efforts.

 

And grey squirrels?

Live trapping and shooting is very intensive and won't work in the long term, which is why you need other tools. Whether it’s desirable or not is a harder question to answer – some people would rather have red squirrels in their back yard, while for others a squirrel’s a squirrel and it doesn’t matter what species it is. 

But if we let species invade everywhere, you will get fauna that's the same everywhere – and most people don’t want that.

 

This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine

 

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