New laws are set to be introduced in Wales to protect rare red squirrels from habitat loss, which causes population decline.

It comes after a successful petition forced a debate in the Senedd on Wednesday (December 9), which saw cross-party support for saving the much-loved native mammal.

Clwyd West MS and Wales' Species Champion for the Red Squirrel, Darren Millar,  welcomed the planned new laws, having given a speech urging for changes in forestry laws to be made by the Welsh Government. 

In his speech in the Senedd Siambr, he said: “How can it be that while it's illegal to kill or injure a red squirrel or disturb a red squirrel in its drey or nest,  a forest containing them is not protected and can be chopped down?

“Yet that, unfortunately, is the current state of affairs, as far as the law is concerned, here in Wales. Because while a felling licence is required to harvest timber or fell trees in private woodland in Wales, it's a scandal that such licences cannot be refused if they cause habitat loss and red squirrel population decline."

READ MORE: Darren Millar MS slams Welsh Government for being "disrespectful" over red squirrels

Ynys Môn MS Rhun ap Iorwerth told the Senedd: "Scotland's already changed legislation. The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 placed a clause in the Forestry Act 1967 that specifically allows the rejection of tree felling permits or attaches conditions to them— 'for the purpose of conserving or enhancing the flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features, or the natural beauty or amenity, of any land.'

The National Wales: Rhun ap Iorwerth is the Senedd Member for Ynys MônRhun ap Iorwerth is the Senedd Member for Ynys Môn

"There is no such clause added to Welsh legislation, and it is time for us to remedy that. And beyond legislation, I have to say that it's a real concern of mine that there is a lack of robust dialogue between Natural Resources Wales and conservation organisations. It's something that I've raised time and time again. Partnership has to be part of the solution in safeguarding the squirrel."

The Climate Change Minister, Julie James, in response, said: "I am all too acutely aware of the limitations of the Forestry Act and the nature of conditions that Natural Resources Wales can apply under a felling licence. These limitations, as many Members have pointed out, can result in a disjoint between the Forestry Act and other environmental legislation, leading to gaps in the protection of wildlife.

"While NRW have taken steps to address this through advisory letters or long-term forestry management plans for landowners, these absolutely do not fully address the issue, as a number of Members have pointed out.

The National Wales: Climate Change Minister Julie JamesClimate Change Minister Julie James

"That's why we've committed to including provisions in the agriculture Bill amending the Forestry Act to allow conditions to be added to felling licences. We will also include provisions to amend, suspend or revoke felling licences after they have been granted. These amendments will help provide better protection for wildlife, for example, in relation to the exemption under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and provide better join-up between forestry and other environmental regulations. The relevant legislation to amend the Forestry Act will be brought forward very shortly.

In May, The National revealed that Natural Resources Wales had allocated zero budget towards monitoring red squirrels at three prime locations on Ynys Môn, while the organisation held no guidance documents on the island's red squirrel population monitoring.

The information had come to light following a series of Freedom of Information requests submitted by the international red squirrel expert, Dr Craig Shuttleworth.

The National Wales: Red squirrel expert Dr Craig Shuttleworth from Bangor UniversityRed squirrel expert Dr Craig Shuttleworth from Bangor University

A petition was launched in June which called for “new laws to protect rare red squirrels from habitat loss which causes population decline due to outdated 1960s tree felling laws”.

By July it had gathered more than 10,000 signatures, which meant that it would be granted a Senedd debate. In September, the debate was confirmed

Dr Shuttleworth told The National that he was "thrilled to bits" with the outcome of the debate. 

"It is fantastic that rare Welsh forest wildlife is going to get better habitat protections," he added. 

"The debate in the Senedd was absolutely awesome as every speaker voiced their support for new forestry legislation and recognised the fact this is essential to prevent biodiversity decline. We've called for first class forestry and world class conservation and the Senedd backed the petition call.

"The Minister gave a firm commitment to bring about urgent law change which is great news. The petition was supported by people from across Wales and it is a tribute to the dogged determination of everyone who has campaigned since 2018 for Wales to have the same forestry laws to protect wildlife as Scotland."

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