Page last updated at 07:14 GMT, Tuesday, 15 April 2008 08:14 UK

Grey squirrel hunting

Grey squirrel
Some consider the grey squirrel as a threat to its red cousins

By Raymond Buchanan
BBC News

Paul Parker describes himself as a conservationist. But Mr Parker conserves by killing.

His chosen prey is the North American Grey Squirrel. The animals are first trapped and then despatched.

His Northumberland-based organisation, the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, say they have culled more than 15,000 squirrels in little over a year. That works out as approximately 200 squirrels a week.

So why does he do it? Mr Parker is clear: "They are carrying squirrel pox which kills the reds. They also hammer the bird population, they kill the chicks to get into nest boxes and they eat eggs.

"We are going to end up losing all our reds within 10 years if we don't take these out of the equation."

I only use a rifle, it's the best way, it's the quickest way
Paul Parker

I joined Mr Parker on an ordinary day of squirrel hunting.

A government grant of 150,000 pays for his services and his traps.

Dozens of hazelnut-stuffed metal cages are placed in gardens and woodlands across the county. Homeowners provide Mr Parker with squirrel intelligence.

Once they see the animal trapped, they either call or text him. He then administers the fatal blow.

"I only use a rifle, it's the best way, it's the quickest way. There is a little spot on the back of the head. If you hit it, in one shot, it is dead."

Kill cage

A text alerts Mr Parker to a trapped grey in a suburban garden on the outskirts of Newcastle.

When we arrive, the trapper takes with him his kill cage.

It will be used to transfer the squirrel so that it can be culled away from the house.

When we get to the squirrel, it is scurrying about trying to escape. It is transferred and a few minutes later in a nearby woodland it is shot.

It's estimated the North is home to 80% of England's native red squirrels.

But their numbers are low - thought to be between 20,000 and 30,000.

Compare that to the three to five million greys believed to be in the UK. But not everyone is convinced that a mass cull is the best way to redress this imbalance.

A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals said: "The RSPCA believes that control must not be interpreted solely as lethal control, and urges the investigation of alternative measures to reduce the impact of grey squirrels on reds, whilst ensuring both reds and greys do not suffer.

"We support a more measured approach. Eradicating long-established entire populations of greys, as well as being ethically questionable, would be very difficult and cause unnecessary suffering."

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A conservationist setting traps for grey squirrels

This is an argument which is dismissed by the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership. They believe quick action is needed.

But you may wonder what is done with all these dead squirrels.

Delicacy?

A game shop in Corbridge is our next stop.

The last two grey squirrel loins are on sale in the window. The furry creatures have become the latest game delicacy.

David Ridley has been selling squirrel for several weeks now.

He told me: "We sell quite a lot on the market and to local restaurants. The shop manages to sell quite a bit."

I leave Paul Parker to continue his controversial culling.

His ambition is to take his skills south and eventually clear the last grey squirrel out of London's Hyde Park. With millions of squirrels along the way, that is unlikely to be realised.



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