GOVERNMENT plans for a widespread cull of marauding grey squirrels have been welcomed by conservationists in Cumbria.
Biodiversity minister, Jim Knight, this week unveiled a raft of measures to control the species, including a cull.
Grey squirrels were introduced in the 19th Century from North America and there are presently around two million in Britain.
The rapid spread of the animals means that they have outnumbered the native red squirrel by 66 to one and have even put the reds at risk of extinction.
Mr Knight said that the plans had been developed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Forestry Commission. They also include evaluating the damage caused by grey squirrels to woodlands and research into effective squirrel control.
Graeme Prest, North West England Forest district manager for the Forestry Commission, said that the scheme would give extra backing to moves already afoot to halt the spread of grey squirrels in Cumbria.
Coniferous woodland, close to Thirlmere; around the Whinlatter Forest Park; and at Whinfell, near Penrith, are some of the last bastions of the reds in England.
At present, hit squads of specially-trained rangers patrol the woodland, shooting grey squirrels or humanely trapping the animals in a bid to halt their devastating invasion.
Mr Prest said that the Forestry Commission would continue in this work following the DEFRA announcement, and would be targeting greys (pictured inset) more intensely.
"The announcement is not a huge change to what we are doing at the moment. But it gives us the reassurance that we have the right approach," he said.
Mr Prest said that red squirrel populations in South Lakeland had declined dramatically over the past decade after the grey invaders swept north from Lancashire.
"In South Lakeland, there are very, very few red squirrels. Ten years ago there were mostly red squirrels in Grizedale Forest but now they have gone because of the arrival of the greys," he explained.
Experts are not yet fully sure why the arrival of grey squirrels cause reds to decline.
However the deadly Squirrelpox virus, which is passed between species, is believed to be a factor.
The grey is bigger and bolder, meaning that they often out-compete the more delicate red for food.
Mr Prest added that scientists were also exploring a form of grey squirrel contraception to halt the animals' spread. But how this would work was not yet clear.
The DEFRA announcement was also welcomed by Jana Kahl, of Kendal-based red squirrel conservation organisation Red Alert North West.
The organisation works to protect the red squirrel by monitoring population numbers, as well as providing advice on grey squirrel control and woodland management.
"It demonstrates government support for red squirrel conservation and is good news for us," she said.