The film presents the views of a full range of experts

Why we need to talk about ‘gene-drive’ grey squirrels

Would the best way of controlling the UK’s rampant grey squirrel population be to spread genetic changes throughout the species?

A new research film, to be shown next month at Exeter Phoenix, sees scientists, conservation and wildlife experts debate the use of emergent ‘gene-drive’ technology in grey squirrels.

The film Should we create gene drive grey squirrels?, written and produced by Sarah Hartley, a Professor in Technology Governance at the University of Exeter Business School, and independent film-maker Tom Law, documents the introduction into the UK of grey squirrels at the turn of the 20th Century and how their burgeoning population has contributed to the demise of the UK’s native red squirrel, which is now mainly found in Scotland.

It presents the reasons why some people argue it would be better to limit the grey squirrel population, including the fact that they carry and spread squirrel pox, a virus fatal to red squirrels which can devastate entire populations.

Forestry experts also explain the detrimental effects of grey squirrels to biodiversity and the economic damage they cause in forests and woodland areas by stripping the bark of trees in search of the sugary sap-like ‘phloem’ substance inside.

Gene drive grey squirrels from Tom Law on Vimeo.

This, they say, causes irreparable damage to the UK’s native trees such as oaks, beeches and silver birches, and makes planting those trees a ‘waste of money’.

By using gene-drive technology scientists propose to limit the number of grey squirrels in the wild by modifying their genes to enable ‘sex biasing’. This would mean that grey squirrels would all be born male, making the species unable to reproduce.

For some, this is this seems like a potential way to control an invasive species and protect biodiversity, but others view gene drive as a ‘biological bomb that threatens natural ecosystems’.

The film doesn’t take sides, but presents the views of a full range of experts working in different fields on the scale of the ‘problem’, the potential effectiveness of gene drive, as well as exploring the ethical dimensions.

These experts include the ecologist Dr Jason Gilchrist from Edinburgh Napier University, John Wilding MBE from Clinton Devon Estates and Charles Dutton from Independent Woodland Management.

The film also includes the perspective of expert Dr Penny Hawkins, Head of the Animals in Science Department at the RSPCA, who warns that “it’s not right to cause [the squirrels] suffering just because they are causing a problem for humans” and Kirsty Jenkins, Policy Officer at OneKind, who argues that labelling any animal a ‘pest’ automatically means you’re giving them less consideration.

For Professor Hartley, now is a good time to debate this emerging technology.

“The hopes and concerns of experts, stakeholders and the public can help to determine if or how gene-drive might be developed,” she said.

“The film draws on our social science research to show the complexity of the problem of grey squirrel control and invites you to think about whether scientists should develop gene drive squirrels or not.”

The film, part of the 2022 Festival of Social Science, will be available online after its premiere at Exeter Phoenix on Wednesday 9 November 2022, 5-7pm.

The event will consist of a 20-minute film screening, audience discussion with filmmakers and stakeholders, and informal drinks.

Register here.

Date: 17 October 2022

Read more University News