Northern Ireland council plans to control grey squirrel in favour of native reds
A report has been commissioned to examine ways of controlling grey squirrels at council properties in north Down.
Councillors voted to grant Ulster Wildlife permission to control the invasive grey species at council properties and include red squirrels and pine martens in the new local biodiversity action plan.
The matter was discussed at a meeting of Ards and North Down Borough Council's community and wellbeing committee.
A motion put forward by DUP councillor Peter Martin suggested erecting red squirrel and pine marten boxes to promote indigenous species and "wherever possible" promoting native woodland trees in borough parks.
Mr Martin explained a presentation by ecological consultant and conservationist Conor McKinney had "opened up my eyes to the inherent dangers red squirrels are in".
He said: "The grey squirrels that are native Americans are much tougher than our reds. The difficulty is the greys carry squirrel pox virus, a nasty virus that kills reds within 14 days, while the greys are immune.
"The question is can reds and greys live together with a level of harmony? And the answer is no, they can't. If we do nothing, the greys will kill all the reds, it's absolutely inevitable that will happen."
The population of red squirrels continues to drop dramatically - there used to be 3.5m reds in Britain and Ireland, and that population has dropped to just 120,000 since the introduction of greys in the 19th century.
Mr Martin added: "This small area of Ards and North Down is absolutely 'mission critical' to the survival of reds in Northern Ireland. What can we do? We have to control the greys. What I've asked for is a report - I think officers can work with Ulster Wildlife, and in particular the North Down Squirrel and Pine Marten Group, to see what can be put in place to protect our red squirrels.
"We can for example grant Ulster Wildlife access to council properties to control greys, and when we use the word control, we do mean to kill.
"I know that doesn't sit well with some environmentalists, depending on what side of the argument you're on. Some people I know and respect will not kill any creatures, but the key argument here is we cannot box greys away."
Alliance representative Andrew Muir asked for an amendment including the phrase 'the potential positive and negative impacts of permitting grey squirrel culling on council land'.
But Mr Martin said the amendment was "too woolly" and insisted he was not asking for a cull.
Green councillor Kathryn McNickle, who supported the amendment, said: "It is a difficult and emotive issue. I don't want to see any culling of animals, I don't think anyone around the table does, but we also need to balance that with protecting our native ecosystem.
"There has been significant research that suggests control of grey squirrels is necessary."
The amendment to the original motion failed to pass as it had six votes for and six against. The original motion then passed.