The secret lives of grey squirrels: ‘The telly was off the wall, plates were smashed, furniture was ripped’

The secret lives of grey squirrels: ‘The telly was off the wall, plates were smashed, furniture was ripped’

This poor lady didn’t close her loft hatch properly and the squirrel got into the flat,” recalls John Silby, a 58-year-old pest controller. “She thought she’d been burgled. The telly was off the wall, plates were smashed, furniture was ripped. We put traps in. When we went back and opened the door, we could smell dead rodent. But the traps hadn’t gone off.”

Silby’s grey squirrel stories have the urgency, mystery and gore of a Sherlock Holmes tale. Once, one of his colleagues was bitten by a squirrel, whose massive incisors went through his thumbnail and out the other side. Silby couldn’t get the animal off, because it was locked on and wriggling, so he had to decapitate it, then wrap the thumb – and the squirrel’s head – in a bandage to take his colleague to A&E.

But I digress. They found the poor lady’s squirrel in the bathroom. “It had chewed through a bottle of Listerine and died of alcohol poisoning. It was in the sink, legs in the air, big smile on its face.”

The Woodland Trust estimates there are 2.7 million grey squirrels in the UK – and numbers are steadily rising. This is partly a result of urbanisation: parks that are largely free of predators, and surrounded by human dwellings with a lot of waste lying about, increase population density. As such, squirrels become less wary of humans and more likely to move into people’s lofts. They breed easily and don’t hibernate, so there is very little to stop them.

I love squirrels. I love trapping them and I love shooting them
John Silby

But it isn’t a sudden population spike that is running pest controllers ragged and driving a surge in insurance claims (one company has reported a 51% annual increase in claims for squirrel-related damage). Rather, it is a combination of factors that you might loosely term “degradation of the public sphere”. Increased storm severity caused by climate change has damaged roofs, while local authority funding cuts have shunted rodent control to the bottom of the agenda. “And a lot of housing associations have wilfully neglected their duty to repair people’s houses,” Silby says.

Once a squirrel is in your loft, it can be difficult to get it out. They don’t move in with 19 friends, like mice. You might get a family nest, or you might just get one. But even a solitary squirrel can do an extraordinary amount of damage. Squirrels can chew through almost anything and, like rabbits, need to keep their teeth occupied constantly. They can get through a rafter in a day; chew into a water tank and deliver half a ton of water into your living room; or nibble through a cable, electrify themselves, perish while locked on to the cable and burst into flames, like a miniature hog roast, in your dust-dry insulation. All of these examples are real.

‘It’s like having chimpanzees living in your back garden’ … Natalia Doran on her squirrel sanctuary. Photograph: Brian Bevan/Alamy
‘It’s like having chimpanzees living in your back garden’ … Natalia Doran on her squirrel sanctuary. Photograph: Brian Bevan/Alamy

Everyone who has closely observed squirrels from any angle – whether as their protector or foe – is united in awe. “They’re extremely muscular, they’re jumpers, they can get up anything,” says Silby. “I love squirrels. I love trapping them and I love shooting them.” Natalia Doran, 58, the founder of Urban Squirrels, a sanctuary (that is also her home) in London with a licence for 18 squirrels, describes their fearsome intelligence: “They learn very quickly, they’re extremely determined, they can solve counterintuitive puzzles. It’s like having chimpanzees living in your back garden.”

Paul Winters, a tree surgeon, forester and woodland manager who lives near Wells in Somerset, is absolutely dismayed by the impact of ring-barking, by which squirrels gnaw at the bark to get to the sap. If they go all the way round, it kills the tree. “What’s actually going on with squirrels is quite devastating,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how many times we witness it, it’s always awful; standing for a minute’s silence for this tree, which we’ve done so much work on. They don’t understand that they’re killing the tree – they just use it till they’ve killed it and move on. They’re a bit like us, in that respect.” Yet he can’t help but admire their single-minded tenacity and resilience: “They’re amazing. They’re delicious, too.”

In 2019, squirrels were designated a non-native invasive species. “For that reason, it’s actually illegal to release a squirrel that you’ve caught,” says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the chef and broadcaster who first cooked squirrel on telly 30 years ago, for his first show A Cook on the Wild Side. Doing so was controversial: “One headline said something like: ‘Fury as TV chef kills Tufty to eat,’” he recalls.

This cuts straight to the heart of the matter – there is no great appetite for culling squirrels, let alone eating them, because “it’s hard not to think that they’re incredibly cute”, as Fearnley-Whittingstall puts it. “One of the things that makes them super-cute is that they’ve got hands. Rabbits are not that ‘handy’, but if you see a squirrel picking up a nut and nibbling it, it’s straight out of Ice Age.”

‘It’s hard not to think that they’re incredibly cute’ … Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Photograph: Jeff Gilbert/Rex/Shutterstock
‘It’s hard not to think that they’re incredibly cute’ … Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Photograph: Jeff Gilbert/Rex/Shutterstock

Yes, they are enthusiasts, they are adaptable and they are good at everything. The urban ones will take food straight from your hand. During lockdown, I took my daughter to the park to feed them; one time, we ran out of nuts and took Doritos instead. They were fine with that.

Their eating habits are not especially cute – “They eat birds, small rodents, each other; they’re omnivores,” Silby says – yet squirrels have this halo of Disney adorableness, which leaves organisations that think of themselves as stewards of the environment in a bind. “Members and stakeholders don’t want to see anything done to anything,” says Winters. One council for which Silby works should have a wildlife animal management policy, but doesn’t. He says this is “because of people’s perceptions of this fluffy animal. They don’t want to be seen to be nasty.”

As far as Doran is concerned, it is very simple: live and let live – and stop calling them vermin. “What’s your definition of vermin? If it’s someone who pollutes the environment, then human beings are the biggest vermin on the planet.” She is challenging the 2019 invasive species legislation; a judicial review is pending.

The three big charges against squirrels are house invasions, displacement of the native red squirrel and damage to trees. When Andrew, 47, noticed a squirrel in residence in his Edinburgh loft, he was equanimous about it. “I don’t think they could make anything fall down unless they acted in concert, or brought in a beaver, but I would prefer them in a tree,” he says. He solved it by blocking the holes in his loft – the advice is to do this mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when they are likely to be out foraging. One person who wishes to remain anonymous ousted a squirrel family by putting a speaker in the attic and playing loud, discordant music.

In an ideal world, squatting squirrels would leave with a bit of encouragement, but this doesn’t always work. An array of traps is available, but be aware that if you capture a grey squirrel alive you are legally obliged to kill it or have it killed, since it is an offence to release one into the wild.

The grey versus red argument is vexed – Doran says it is “a myth”. The British subspecies of red squirrel had all but died out before the grey squirrel, from the US, or the Scandinavian red squirrel were introduced in the 19th century. “The Scandinavian reds interbred with the few remaining native squirrels, so the red squirrels you see now are not native squirrels. Both greys and reds are introduced species, but the greys are a better fit,” Doran says. She puts the greys’ pariah status down to academic fashion: sometimes it is in vogue to bring animals and plants from one continent to another to see what happens; sometimes the native is deemed superior.

Winters is adamant that it is because grey squirrels don’t belong that they interact so badly with the environment: “As with a lot of invasive species, you put something where they shouldn’t be and they do very well, thank you very much.” Of course, it is possible for a native species to be a giant pain in the neck, too. Roe deer, whose numbers are higher post-Covid than at any time since the middle ages, also devastate young trees.

Doran wishes people would look at the issue of squirrels and trees in the round. Yes, they chew bark, but “they also plant trees [by hiding nuts and seeds that they fail to retrieve] and they’re better at it than red squirrels, because of the way they hoard. Red squirrels tend to put all their eggs in one basket, whereas grey squirrels distribute them more.”

Winters will have none of this: “When you work in trees, you see how few mature, veteran trees we’ve got. Not the famous 1,000-year-old oaks; the 100-year-plus trees. We have so few of them and we’re losing so many all the time. There has been a huge push to plant trees, money thrown at it from farming subsidies. How many of those trees survive? There’s a little woodland near us, planted by a farmer 20 years ago. It’s horrific: single-stem trees, with the top just hanging off where it’s been ring-barked. And that’s that. That’s the end of that tree. What’s it all been for? It’s like having a hen house with a fox underneath it.”

In 2021, the Royal Forestry Society put the cost of squirrel damage at £37m a year in lost timber value and reduced carbon capture. But timber revenue isn’t a very animating cause: “As an environmentalist, you think: ‘I don’t care – that’s their problem,’” Winters says. “But if we want trees, and we want them to live a long time, we have to do something.”

Deer culls feel more ethical than squirrel killing, because we eat venison, so it feels less like carnage and more like agriculture. Perhaps, then, we should eat more squirrel. This is certainly Fearnley-Whittingstall’s view. “It’s quite hard to tell how old a squirrel is, other than how hard they are to skin,” he says. “A tough one needs long, slow cooking, but makes a wonderful ragu. A young one can be roasted.”

Richard Corrigan used to serve squirrel at Lindsay House in London, where he won a Michelin star in 1997. “That wasn’t very expensive,” he says. “That was very good news for me at the time. We were trying with a small team to stay alive and the squirrel certainly helped us on our journey.”

He got a few angry letters, some of which accused him of cooking red squirrel. “That never happened,” he says. When he opened Corrigan’s in 2008, they had a ballottine of squirrel, pigeon and rabbit. I remember ordering it for the novelty and being surprised at how subtle it was – nothing like as gamey as rabbit. “It was damn tasty, it looked great – and what a great use for a bit of vermin,” he says.

Corrigan’s supplier was an estate in south Wales; an urban squirrel probably wouldn’t taste the same, after all the Doritos and loft insulation and whatnot, although Silby says he has a friend who eats the London squirrels he has killed. “To me, eating squirrels is like eating your friends,” Doran says.

Corrigan now has a pig farm in Ireland, where he rears the animals on Heineken, buttermilk and muesli. It produces great meat, apparently, but that would be like eating my friends.

Last year, the Animal and Plant Health Agency devised a plan to spike squirrel bait with contraceptives. It should be operational within 18 months, painlessly reducing the population and circumventing all these questions – what is humane, are squirrels too cute to die, are they too cute to eat, are trees also cute – at a stroke. Then we will just have rats to contend with. Or, in the worst case scenario, raccoons.

“Someone will bring them in as a pet,” predicts Silby. “They’ve got the ability to grip and open things; extreme dexterity. If a pair of them get out, you’re in a whole world of hurt.”

This article by Zoe Williams was first published by The Guardian on 12 April 2023. Lead Image: Relentless … a grey squirrel plotting on a rooftop. Photograph: Gordon Hulmes Nature/Alamy.

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