Plans to kill thousands of grey squirrels have been condemned by animal rights groups as “absolutely absurd”.

They have said that culling squirrels to save trees would lead to a public outcry, which could undermine the government’s efforts to show that it cares about animal welfare.

Michael Gave, the environment secretary, has signalled his support for a cull because squirrels strip the bark from broadleaf saplings, including beeches, sycamores and oaks, which is often fatal for the trees.

Squirrel Pox

Grey squirrels also carry the squirrel pox virus, which while harmless to them, is usually fatal when passed to red squirrels.

Red squirrels have been successfully reintroduced to Anglesey and Bangor after widespread culling of grey squirrels, although a recent resurgence in the number of greys and squirrel pox, is threatening the local red squirrel population. Several confirmed cases of the fatal squirrel pox have been identified in Bangor over the last few months.

Craig Shuttleworth, from Bangor University, who supports the cull, said: “Grey squirrels are highly invasive and very damaging, costing £14 million each year to the UK economy, we can’t grow hardwoods because they strip the bark and they’ve decimated the red squirrel population in the UK.”

Craig added: “I’ve worked for 25 years restoring red squirrels back into north Wales, at the moment we’re working on a non lethal method of control, an immunocontraception, that would be integrated with the other management we have, it wouldn’t stop animals being culled but it would give us a non-lethal method of control that we could use in some circumstances.”