A PLAN to make Knowsley Safari Park a safe environment for red squirrels has met public opposition as it involves killing off grey squirrels.

Animal rights activists have launched a petition calling on the safari park to abandon its plans, calling them “disgraceful”.

But the Prescot-based park, which is working with conservation group Reclaiming Reds, has argued that controlling grey squirrel numbers is essential to protect red squirrels.

The last time red squirrels were seen on the Knowsley Estate was in 2016 and the species is believed to be locally extinct. However, there are red squirrels around Formby and Reclaiming Reds hopes these will be able to move into Knowsley once the grey squirrel population has been reduced.

The plans put forward by Reclaiming Reds involve trapping and shooting grey squirrels, which the group says present a threat to red squirrels by outcompeting them for food and carrying squirrel pox – a disease that is fatal to reds but does not affect greys.

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But in the petition, Liz Sullivan, one of the activists, said: “Knowsley Safari Park have teamed up with Reclaiming Reds, a group that is seeking to exterminate grey squirrels under the guise of ‘conservation’. 

“One of the methods they are employing is encouraging members of the public to loan traps from them, in order to catch and kill squirrels on private land. They are offering training to people to catch and kill grey squirrels .

“This normalisation of violence towards wildlife is absolutely disgraceful.”

Ms Sullivan also criticised the Reclaiming Reds plan for not including measures to reintroduce red squirrels to the areas and claimed it was human activity and habitat loss that had caused their numbers to decline, not grey squirrels.

However, a spokesperson for Reclaiming Reds said: “Although some parts of the conservation efforts can understandably raise concerns, they are very carefully considered and well researched steps that are necessary to help avoid native red squirrels becoming extinct in England within the next ten years. 

“Humanely controlling numbers of non-native grey squirrels is vital for protecting the survival of red squirrels. Research shows that invasive grey species are responsible for the spread of squirrel pox, which doesn’t necessarily affect them but is fatal to red squirrels and can rapidly kill whole populations of the native species. 

“The grey squirrel also has a negative impact on woodland biodiversity, which further threatens the survival of the native reds.”

The group’s website added that reintroducing red squirrels to the area was something that Reclaiming Reds “may look at in the future once the grey population has reduced and the area is safe for red squirrels”.

Naomi Davies, research and conservation officer at the Knowsley Safari Foundation, said: “We’d like to create a corridor between here and Formby that will allow the reds to disperse naturally. But if they don’t move naturally into the area we might look at supplementing the [red] population.”

The Reclaiming Reds project has received £100,000 from the National Lottery and is expected to run for two years.

The activists' petition has been signed by more than 400 people.