Gun clubs compete in squirrel cull

 

GUN CLUBS throughout the country have been participating in a scheme to shoot “alien” grey squirrels which are blamed for the catastrophic decline in the population of native red squirrels.

The forestry service of the Department of Agriculture last year sponsored a prize fund as part of its efforts to cull a species which is also blamed for causing damage to trees by stripping the bark from saplings.

Last year the participating gun clubs shot bagged 1,364 greys – up from 995 in 2008. Thirteen counties participated in the 2009 grey squirrel-shooting and the winner was Co Meath.

Clubs in the royal county shot 214 creatures and won a cash prize of €1,600. In second place was Co Monaghan, which received a prize of €1,100 for its tally of 196. Neighbouring Co Cavan came third with a kill of 153. The other participating counties also received cash amounts with the total prize fund amounting to €6,500.

The novel eradication programme was developed following consultations with the National Association of Regional Game Councils which represents some 900 gun clubs throughout the Republic.

Des Crofton, the association’s national director, said counties must have kills verified by producing evidence in the form of squirrel carcases or tails. Clubs in Co Wicklow had the highest kill, he said, but “failed to make the returns so they missed out”. He is currently in discussions with the Department of Agriculture to fund a new contest in 2010.

The grey squirrel, native to the United States, was introduced inadvertently to Ireland in 1911 when a group of creatures escaped from a gift hamper given to a woman at Castle Forbes in Co Longford by the Duke of Buckingham.

Mr Crofton said grey squirrels were predominantly found in the east of the country because the river Shannon had acted as “a natural barrier”. However, Liam Lysaght, director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, said the grey has breached the Shannon as well as the Suir and Blackwater, which had been preventing its spread southwards. He described the grey as “a major threat” to the survival of the red squirrel.

The eradication of the grey squirrel – a prolific breeder – is notoriously difficult. Experts in Italy, where greys were introduced in 1948, have claimed that “to ensure red squirrel survival, at least 50 per cent of grey squirrels must be removed yearly”.

Mr Lysaght said it was thought there were 40,000 red squirrels left on the island of Ireland, a fall of 20 per cent from its peak. He said the number of grey squirrels had risen sharply but an exact figure could not be estimated.