Ladies and gentlemen, may I just begin by thanking Suzy and Hal Bagot more than I can possibly say for agreeing to host this crucially important gathering here. Levens Hall is a very special place indeed – I can’t tell you how much I love it here. As an ardent topiarist, it is a pleasure to come back and gaze in admiration at these amazing creations. You might like to know that I have a red squirrel topiary at Highgrove.
Today, I hope, will be the beginning of the co-ordinated fight-back on behalf of our precious and very British red squirrel, in the face of the relentless march across the country of the pernicious greys. If I may, I just want to give you a little background to the Red Squirrel Survival Trust which we are launching today and of which I am delighted to be the Patron.
For many years I have been deeply concerned about the plight of this utterly charming creature and, over the last 12months, I have been working with a number of the extraordinary individuals and organizations across the country who have been in the forefront of the battle to preserve the reds – and I am so pleased to see many of them here today, particularly Miles Barne, Craig Shuttleworth, and Carrie Nicholson. Last June I hosted a dinner at Clarence House to see if I could start the ball rolling for the Red Squirrel Survival Trust and the ball seems to have ended up here!
During this whole exercise, it became clear that these groups could be so much more effective and powerful if somehow they could be brought together under one umbrella – there is, I have always found, strength in numbers!
And so the Red Squirrel Survival Trust was born and that is what we are here to celebrate today with this seminar.
Unlike many people in this country I am very lucky to see red squirrels regularly in Scotland at Birkhall, where I have been indulging them with hazelnuts, and they are becoming remarkably tame. Sometimes when I am sitting at my desk, I hear the pitter patter of tiny feet and they run all the way round my office. They really are very special creatures. But of course one of the problems is that the reds are now so marginalized that very few people in this country have actually ever seen one. Many do not even realize that they are native to this country and that the greys are a totally alien species having been imported here just over one hundred years ago.
I am old enough now to remember while a child seeing red squirrels regularly on the Sandringham Estate in the 1960s and then they completely disappeared. Now, sadly, it is almost impossible to see them anywhere in the vast majority of England and Wales (with some notable exceptions, such as Anglesey and the Isle of Wight and of course good old Cumbria); while the remaining red population in Northern England and Scotland is under continued attack. That is why one of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust's key tasks will be working tirelessly to communicate to the largest possible audience that the greys are, quite literally, driving the native reds to the verge of extinction, not only because they are larger and more aggressive, but because they spread the appalling squirrel pox, to which they are immune but from which the more vulnerable reds suffer dreadfully. At the same time and worst of all, the greys, which are far more populous than the reds, are destroying huge amounts of woodlands, particularly beech trees.
Any attempts to plant much neede native species, community woodlands for instance are being seriously compromised by disastrous damage caused by greys as I know all too well down in Gloucestershire where we have a real battle to protect the trees I have lovingly planted over the past 29 years.
But the news is by no means all bad. Thanks to the astonishing work of a number of people in this room the reds are, in some places, holding their own and in Anglesey, owing to some remarkable work by Dr Shuttleworth and others, they have been successfully re-introduced. But the terrifying reality is that within a decade, if we cannot work together to bring in the necessary funding for the task which needs to be done, the red squirrel could be extinct right across the United Kingdom. Now I, for one, am simply not prepared to let that happen and I hope that under the new banner of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust everyone who is fighting for the red and is determined to preserve it, will come together in order to reverse its decline. And if I may just state the blindingly obvious, grey squirrels don’t respect county borders or local authority areas. It is only by developing co-ordinated and integrated campaigns to eliminate the greys, that we will ensure a future for the reds. Personally, I cannot think of a better mascot for our country than the red squirrel – perhaps that just might make people realize what it is that they are about to lose... and unless we get our act together and fast we are about to lose an awful lot of other species too.
Of course, the plight of the red squirrel is symptomatic of a general lack of awareness of the importance of preserving our natural habitat. There is, so often, a total lack of understanding of how Nature works and how our survival depends on its complexity and its balance.
I was in South America recently and I visited the Galapagos Islands, perhaps the most fragile ecosystem in the world. There I saw, first hand, the dangers facing wildlife from alien predators and increasingly kinds of invasive species and the tremendous efforts made by scientists and environmentalists to preserve its future. If only we could make half that effort to preserve our own natural environment....
So, why is this important? Because Nature is vital for our health and wellbeing. Dr Eric Chivian, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Harvard Medical School and one of the leading scientists looking at biodiversity, whom I met some years ago, recently completed a paper at my request, on the effects of biodiversity and health. The paper showed, quite conclusively, that there is a direct relationship between the health of humans and the levels of biodiversity in the world; whether it is the destruction of the world’s rainforests, which provide the very rain on which global agriculture depends, or the loss of natural organisms that have a direct effect on the spread of infectious diseases which we are increasingly seeing all around the world.
As many of you will know, one of the species that we cannot live without is the British honey bee and other bees generally. A population which faces a threat as great as the red squirrel. One third of our hives did not survive last Winter and Spring largely due to the varroa mite. And colony collapse disorder is another problem. So severe has the problem become that the British Government has predicted that if nothing is done to arrest the decline, the honey bee could be extinct in the United Kingdom within ten years. And without honey bees, British agriculture, and not only british agriculture, will be decimated. To make matters worse, the crisis of the honey bee is spreading across the globe. That is why I have been doing what I can to encourage the Wellcome Trust, to whom I wrote, to conduct urgent research into why it is happening so that we can do something about it – and fast.
I have said this before but I will say it again, it is as if we have been undertaking a gigantic experiment with Nature. Pushing harder and harder against its natural envelope, trying to find its limits. The trouble with this particular experiment is that unless we stop and review all this, then it will be impossible to undo the damage. We will have tested Nature to destruction and destroyed Nature’s capital on which we all depend.
Recently I was interviewed by ITN in the Amazon and asked why all this was important when there was so much financial hardship in the world. I replied that you cannot have capitalism without capital. By that I meant the world’s natural capital which supports all our activities. Nature provides – in the jargon – ecosystem services, such as the way the Rainforests produce water for the world’s crops to grow, or the way the Arctic reflects the sun’s rays to regulate the planet’s temperature. If we destroy these, which we are in the process of doing – by cutting down the rainforests or letting the arctic ice melt further by releasing ever more greenhouse gases and the worst scenario of all the melting of the tundra in Siberia which will release methane gas and speed up global warming – then our economy will, quite simply, be unable to function. Likewise, if we persist in pillaging the ocean, reducing most fish stocks by up to 90 per cent and facing the imminent collapse of such stocks, let alone the intricate balance of bio-diversity and eco-system services in the sea, then we will have cut our own throats. We can’t continue without Nature’s support. We cannot go on living off capital and not income – this is the essence of sustainability.
To me, the plight of the red squirrel and yes - the honey bee too - is yet another example of man's short-sightedness in an increasingly throwaway society. And, as stewards of this Earth, we should all feel deeply ashamed of it. The future of both species is a crucial test of just how serious we are about sustainability. We talk about sustainability but most of the time it is business as usual with tiny green knobs on. Do we have to hit a brick wall before we wake up? The red squirrel is an iconic mammal – one of the most delightful in this country – it is my most fervent wish that the Red Squirrel Survival Trust will help us all to recognize in time what must be done to save it. There are many people in this room who, I know, are determined to make a difference, whether through financial support or hands-on involvement, and I would like to offer you all my heartfelt thanks. You have done such fantastic work already and have set a wonderful example. You are engaged on a crucial mission and your efforts will make all the difference. Needless to say I am right behind you.