Management of grey squirrels and rabbits on the Dartington estate
We like rabbits and squirrels as well as dormice, birds and trees. We also want to help our tenants make a living out of small-scale farming.
In line with all landowners, farmers, foresters and allotment holders, we have always accepted that squirrels and rabbits will cause a certain amount of damage to trees or crops.
But rising populations of these animals on the Dartington estate mean that things are out of kilter. Squirrels are damaging trees and rabbits are eating our tenants’ organic crops, both in increasing numbers, and we have been asked by tenants and woodland managers to take action.
Here follows some background information, rationale and guidelines and a summary of how we will be responding.
Grey squirrels – the issues
- Damage to estate trees
Our estate manager John Channon and forester Mike Gardner of sustainable timber company Woodmanship manage our woods in accordance with national Forestry Commission guidance, to increase biodiversity and to provide a crop for timber building.
Dartington’s strategy is to reduce the number of conifers in favour of native hardwoods, which are known as ‘broadleaves’ to increase biodiversity. Species include oak, chestnut, beech, birch and ash, some of which take many years to establish.
Mike Gardner of Woodmanship says:
‘Oaks can live up to 300 years, but all big oaks fall eventually. We are trying to grow replacements but all the young broadleaves we’ve been planting in the last 30 years throughout the estate are being attacked by grey squirrels. There’s terrible damage visible especially on the oaks and chestnuts in North Wood. Grey squirrels have no natural predators and are breeding to very high numbers.’
Squirrel damage is identifiable by a deformed shape, stunted growth, areas of dead brown leaves in otherwise green foliage, scars and gaps in the tree’s bark.
On the Dartington estate there are a number of broadleaf plantations of native hardwoods where a large percentage of the crop has been damaged and will have to be felled. Squirrels are also adversely affecting the redwoods in North Wood. This is part of a wider problem in south west England where squirrels are making it virtually impossible to grow broadleaved trees for timber (with the exception of cherry).
- Damage to endangered species (habitat and food supply)
Our estate warden Mike Newby uses a sustainable management strategy in conservation areas to encourage wildlife diversity. We are managing habitats and monitoring populations of specific endangered or rare species. This includes restoring hedgerows, researching options to restore marshland, developing otter holts and eel runs as well as monitoring bats, dormice and birds.
Mike Newby, who works with dedicated conservation volunteers, says:
‘As part of our work to improve habitats for endangered dormice, we’ll be planting understorey shrubs such as hazel and hawthorn this winter. But unfortunately grey squirrels also like hazel and are particularly keen on stripping a circle of bark off, or ‘ring barking’ them – which kills them. They also compete with dormice for a food supply. And finally they eat the chicks and eggs of small native song birds like robins, wrens and blue tits – taking them from their nests before they can fly.’
Grey squirrels are a schedule 9 animal, an invasive non-native species, to which section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 applies. Section 14 makes it an offence to release or allow to escape into the wild any animal that is included in Schedule 9.
Certain spring traps are approved for the trapping of grey squirrels under the Spring Traps Approval Order 1995.
Guidelines from the Forestry Commission (a non-ministerial government department managing Britain’s forests) stipulate that landowners are responsible for controlling grey squirrels where they are causing problems:
‘Control for tree damage prevention should aim to reduce resident squirrel densities to below damaging levels (<5 per ha) just prior to and during the main damage period (April–July).’
‘Where grey squirrels are causing problems land owners and managers are critical to the success of policy implementation by taking responsibility for controlling grey squirrels on their land… It is not practical to exterminate grey squirrels from areas where they are already established. However, targeted control is often necessary to reduce or prevent damage.’
Summary: Dartington follows Forestry Commission guidelines. Each year our forester carries out an annual survey to determine level of squirrel damage and makes recommendations on priority areas and level of management required.
Although warfarin bait is recommended by the Forestry Commission as the best method of control, we do not use it, since on occasion in the past we have found that members of the public have dislodged the traps from the trees, which has led to the warfarin being scattered on the ground where it can be ingested by all forms of wildlife and domestic animals.
We instead use a combination of methods including trapping using Kania traps and shooting, assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Our action to reduce tree damage
Small-scale management by experienced individuals will take place in a limited area in North Wood. They will follow safety procedures following an appropriate risk assessment, comply with our shooting policy and are covered by public liability insurance.
Rabbits – the issues
- Damage to organic crops
One of our tenant farmers says:
‘We’ve had an ongoing battle with rabbits since we started – the trouble is there’s just so many of them. We seem to have Olympic-style rabbits on the Dartington estate that leap over fences 3.5 foot high. We’ve put up 5 foot high rabbit proof fences around part of the perimeter but it would cost £2K to enclose our whole farm. They eat our squash, sweetcorn and salad – they can demolish an entire bed of salad overnight, which has taken up to three months to grow. We lose 20 per cent of our crop each year to pests including rabbits.
‘If people want to eat food, even the most fresh organic local produce, they have to accept that those growing their food have to deal with pests.’
Landowners have a legal responsibility to control rabbit numbers:
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states that landowners must obey the law to control rabbit numbers on their property or land. England (excluding the City of London and Isles of Scilly) was declared a rabbit clearance area under the Pests Act 1954.
Landowners must control rabbits on their land in this area. If this is not possible, they must stop them causing damage to adjoining crops by putting up rabbit proof fencing. If the landowner does not take action, the Secretary of State for the Environment can enforce control and prosecute them.
The 1954 law states: ‘The occupier of any land in a rabbit clearance area shall take such steps as may from time to time be necessary for the killing or taking of wild rabbits living on or resorting to the land, and, where it is not reasonably practicable to destroy the wild rabbits living on any part of the land, for the prevention of damage by those rabbits, and shall in particular comply with any directions contained in the rabbit clearance order as to the steps to be so taken or as to the time for taking them.’
Landowners are permitted to control rabbits using gas, traps and snares, fencing, ferreting and shooting.
Summary: Shooting is only allowed on the Dartington estate by authorised individuals who have been issued a shooting permit. Only specific species are to be managed through shooting determined by the estate manager and property director using findings of annual population surveys.
All shooting to take place on foot and individual undertaking shooting are responsible for disposal of all ammunition and other related debris (pellets, cartridges, shot).
Public safety is paramount and it is the responsibility of the authorised individual who is shooting to ensure public safety at all times, with no shooting to take place in the vicinity of people. There is a risk assessment in place for shooting which is reviewed regularly.
Our action to reduce crop damage
A number of Dartington’s land based tenants have asked us to arrange for the control of rabbits that are damaging their horticultural crops.
Our response is to arrange for small scale control of rabbits in the morning or before dusk in an area of School Farm. Those involved will follow safety procedures as our risk assessment requires, comply with our shooting policy and are covered by public liability insurance.
The carcasses and by-products of the rabbits will be used on the estate or locally. They will enter the food chain and be used for other purposes. There is limited demand for squirrel meat or by-products, but if you are interested, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.