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Why would anyone want to kill this cute little chap?

Environmentalists are operating a colour bar. They don't like the migrant squirrel which came to Ireland in the last century and which thrives here.

It is grey; it is vermin and many approve brutal measures to advance its extermination.

It's not that they have anything against squirrels as such. They like red squirrels. Why? Because they are indigenous.

The population of the red squirrel is in decline, since it has to compete with the grey for resources. The greys carry a virus which the reds so far have little defence against. For that they should die. It doesn't matter that we now have more squirrels than ever before. The reds have rights and the greys do not.

But grey squirrels are nice too. In the last three years they have appeared in the Ormeau Park and in many Belfast gardens. I never in all my growing up in Ireland saw a grey or a red squirrel.

When I first saw wild squirrels in India, I found them utterly charming little creatures. It's partly to do with the way they bounce along, their tails extended behind them. They are cheeky but not too cheeky. I have been bitten by a squirrel, so I am entitled to some umbrage against the species. One was playing near my feet as I sat still while reading and mistook my big toe for a nut.

The tooth, when it slid in, was as neat as the sharpest razor and I only felt the wound afterwards.

But I doubt if the grey squirrels of Ormeau pose any threat.

Dogs chase them and they run up trees. Children gawk at them amazed. They may be just rodents like rats, but they appear to be clean. Their habitat is the trees not the sewers.

This year they have started leaving the park and exploring the streets and gardens of Ballynafeigh.

One of them found a bird feeder in our garden and managed to cut through the mesh to get at the nuts, so my wife Maureen ordered in a feeder box, especially for squirrels and it now hangs from a little rowan tree overlooking the hedge.

Cyril — christened by a little boy two doors down — comes every day to the feeder box. His movements up and down the tree and around the feeder are as graceful and rhythmic as a dance. He prances as he explores.

And we sit in the living room and watch him, wondering at first why he manages to open the feeder box some days and not others, until two Cyrils turned up at once.

I have no idea how many are out there in the street, hiding under cars, dodging the cats and nipping into other gardens looking for grub.

Cyril has no idea that the source of his food is the two woolly vertical primates who pass him every day, or why they point cameras at him, but he is getting used to having us around and we appreciate that.

And we have come to feel protective.

You see, we do not discriminate between squirrels. We would be every bit as hospitable to a red squirrel as to a grey. It's just that the ones who come to our garden are grey.

The advice for anyone who feeds squirrels in their garden is to expect the numbers to increase.

They will bury some of the nuts in your lawn, but they will do it tidily. The problem is that when you are away and not topping up the feeder, they may not be so tidy when they dig up the buried store. You have to feed them nuts with the shells on so that they can wear down their teeth in the work of eating into them. Otherwise the teeth would continue to grow, like our fingernails, and wedge the jaw permanently open.

The reason we failed to notice, at first that there were two Cyrils, is that they are identical. All grey squirrels in Ireland are descended from a pair that were brought in from North America as a gift for a woman in Castleforbes in Co Longford and then escaped. They bred so successfully in a country so conducive to their reproduction that they have proliferated to all parts of the island.

For a long time they hadn't worked out how to cross the Shannon, but now they are in the west too, resourceful wee beings that they are.

But this success story is regarded in environmentalist circles as a disaster.

They make the case that the grey squirrels spread poxvirus, a disease to which the greys have developed antibodies.

The grey squirrels have not gone out and exterminated the reds, but they have thrived better in the deciduous woodlands which are their natural environment.

And it wasn't the grey squirrels who cleared the older conifer woods which the reds were more at home in.

The Irish government now pays a bounty for the killing of grey squirrels. They have set up a county by county competition with a cash prize for the highest number of Cyrils — sorry, squirrels — shot dead. About a thousand are killed every year and the prize to the gunclub with the highest number of kills is €1,600.

The clubs rationalise that shooting a squirrel is a relative act of kindness, as distinct from trapping them, because they are so small that virtually any bullet kills them outright.

During the recent foot and mouth epidemic, the disclosure that some farmers were shooting sheep was reported as a huge scandal, barbarous cruelty.

By the logic by which squirrels are shot it would presumably have been humane to blast the sheep with RPG 7s.

I would not like to answer for the welfare of anyone who starts shooting squirrels in Ormeau Park.

The Forestry Commission in Britain is also paying grants to encourage to slaughter of grey squirrels (they prefer to use words like culling or eradication). In Northumberland last week the commission extended a buffer zone extending to the Solway Firth in which they hope the reds can be protected from poxvirus infection by the greys.

In Scotland, strangely, they have decided that their grey squirrels aren't as infectious as the English ones.

There are still red squirrels in Northern Ireland. You can see them in Mount Stewart, though only in the mornings, according to my source, because they sleep through the afternoons.

I'm sure they are beautiful creatures but I wholly reject the logic that other squirrels should be killed in huge numbers to preserve them.

It’s not the first time the red squirrel has been under threat

This is not the first time that the indigenous red squirrel has faced a real threat to its existence in Ireland.

The red — once the only species of squirrel in Europe until the introduction of the American grey in the late 1800s — became extinct in Ireland in the early 1700s.

Decimation of woodland — down to only 2% of the land area — and the fragmentation of the remaining broadleaved habitat were the main reasons for the disappearance of the animal.

It was in the first half of the 19th century that the red squirrel — the animals were brought from England — was reintroduced into 10 sites throughout Ireland.

Northern Ireland still suffers from a lack of habitat for the red, with tree cover at only 6% compared to the EU average of 35%. The red needs a substantial area of woodland, around 200 hectares, to provide a viable habitat.

There is also the threat for the poxvirus which is potentially fatal to the red squirrel. The grey is unaffected and is thought to be a carrier of the disease, hence the desire on the part of some to eradicate the grey from our countryside.

Other threats come from natural predators such as sparrow hawks and buzzards, rats, cats and foxes — which also attack grey squirrels. However it is believed that predators have a negligible effect on either species’ survival or population numbers.

The feeding habits of the two species give the grey squirrel an advantage, especially when food is in short supply.

Greys can consume unripe food such as hazelnuts in winter, but the red can only ingest ripened nuts and are therefore more likely to suffer from shortages during the winter months.

Where food is scarce, the densities of reds appear to be lower than greys, showing that red reproduction rates are affected by diet.

If food is plentiful there is little difference in the reproduction rates of the two species.

Efforts to cull the grey squirrel population began in the UK in the 1930s and by the following decade there were gun clubs in existence dedicated solely to shooting the greys. They were given free shotgun cartridges and a bounty for every squirrel tail presented to the authorities.

A more humane method of population control is the subject of a research project involving the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in England and the Forestry Commission.

The aim is to see if contraceptives can be introduced into the grey squirrel diet to stop them reproducing.

Additional reporting Laurence White

Belfast Telegraph