The 11th Duke of Bedford has this week been singled out for being a key figure in the seemingly unstoppable spread through Britain of the grey squirrel.
A new study suggests that Herbrand Russell, was one of the worst culprits of ‘squirrel spreading’.
DNA profiling by Dr Lisa Signorile of the Imperial College London reveals grey squirrels are not as good invaders as we think, and that humans played a much larger role in spreading them through the UK.
She said: “It has been thought since the 1930s that grey squirrels were all the same, spreading across the country as one invasion front.
“After a century, genetics has proved that this isn’t correct. They are not that good at breeding and mixing – in fact there are clear signs of inbreeding.”
The Duke, an eminent animal conservationist, not only imported 10 of the creatures from America, but released them into the grounds of his home of Woburn Abbey and sent them to friends across the country as presents for their own estates.
He also released populations in Regent’s Park, creating the current London epidemic of greys.
“It was a time when we didn’t know invasive species could cause so much damage,” said Dr Signorile.
She said: “The most important introduction occurred in 1890, when 10 grey squirrels imported from New Jersey were released at Woburn Abbey.
“Woburn squirrels were later distributed as gifts across a minimum of seven sites in the UK and Ireland, but no systematic documentation of these translocations was kept, so the number of propagules from Woburn may have been greater.
There are an estimated 2,520,000 grey squirrel across the UK. They heavily outweigh their red counterparts, of which, only around 10,000 -15,000 are thought to exist. The grey squirrels carried squirrel pox, which native reds had no immunity to.