by John Handley, November 2015
We’ve just been scolded by an indignant squirrel. It’s October and the days are noticeably shorter and my daily amble with Sidbury, a loping Labrador cross Collie, is broken by his confusion as the rabbit he thought he was chasing dashes up the trunk of an oak tree, along a bough, skitters through the branches, leaps onto a neighbouring beech tree and comes to a halt on the trunk of the beech where it berates both Sidbury and I, with what could pass for a stream of expletives.
In common with many people who feed garden birds, I have a love/hate relationship with squirrels. I admire their agility, dexterity, intelligence and ability to live successfully alongside people. I’m duped into seeing their bright-eyed, bushy-tailed demeanor as appealing and dare I go as far as ‘cute’? But they epitomise the quandary we face as naturalists when we shoulder the responsibility as temporary custodians of our countryside. They engender uncomfortable feelings of status, even race, colour and where we draw the line when it comes to looking after what is ours.
The language used around grey squirrels is loaded: non-native, alien, Grey’s vs Reds, talk of culling, trapping, vermin, tree-rats, long-term contraceptives and vaccinations. What did they do to earn such condemnation?
The grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, was introduced into the UK from America. The first documented release was at Henbury Park in Cheshire (Rotherham & Lambert, 2011), although the most significant release was in Woburn Park, Bedfordshire in 1890. Up until that point the only squirrel in Britain was the Eurasian red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, which had made its way here after the glaciers retreated around 8,000 years ago, and the North Sea and English Channel cut us off from Europe awarding the red squirrel the status of ‘native’. This doesn’t mean that it has always been considered favourably: both red and grey squirrels strip the bark off trees to get at the sugary sap, and also eat the fungi that grow underneath. Removing bark is also a method of marking territory and squirrels use the bark to line their nests, which are of two types, a cavity within a tree and a drey, which is an assemblage of twigs within the fork of two branches. The damage that this does to trees has cost the Forestry Commission more than £10m (Broome and Johnson, 2001).
Although now protected and currently on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species list as a species of least concern in the 19th and 20th century the red squirrels were heavily persecuted and pushed to the brink of extinction throughout the UK. Shooting clubs were set up to eradicate red squirrels, their tails were kept as proof to redeem bounties. Right up until 1946 the Highland Squirrel Club paid out £1,504 to members of up to 56 estates. It was considered to be such sport, and numbers of squirrels had dropped to such an extent, that it was necessary to reintroduce them from other areas of the country and from countries such as Sweden.
Since their release in 1890 at Woburn, grey squirrels quickly naturalised and, in the absence of competition and with predators also being supressed, the population exploded – by 1930 the population covered 25,693 km2 and five years later this area had nearly doubled. The impact of this spectacular growth in numbers resulted in The Destructive Imported Animals Act in 1932, making it illegal to import, keep or release grey squirrels. Propaganda was produced promoting the control of grey squirrels: in 1936 twenty six county councils distributed more than 5000 posters entreating the general public to ‘kill the tree rat’. In 1937 it was designated a pest because of the damage it did to trees and cereal crops and a bounty system was established to try to control the population.
In 1943 County War Agricultural Executive Committees issued free shotgun cartridges to registered grey squirrel shooting clubs to reduce grey squirrel numbers (MAF, 1943). By the end of 1947, 450 Grey Squirrel Shooting Clubs had killed 100,000 grey squirrels. This had little effect, by the 1950’s the grey squirrel occupied the whole of central England and was still expanding its range by over 2,500 km2 per year. By 1952 approximately 7,000 Grey Squirrel Shooting Clubs were in existence and in 1953 the first anti-grey squirrel propaganda was broadcast on Radio 4’s ‘The Archers’. An experimental bonus system was introduced to complement squirrel clubs; one shilling or two free cartridges paid per grey squirrel tail. The bounty was raised to two shillings in 1956. 1,520,304 grey squirrel bounties were paid in five years with no effect on grey squirrel numbers. This system was abandoned in 1958 when it was demonstrated that trapping is more efficient than shooting grey squirrels.
Where grey squirrels have been increasing both in terms of numbers and their range, red squirrels have diminished. There are now over 3 million grey squirrels and less than 160,000 red squirrels with some forecasts stating that the red squirrel will be extinct in the UK by 2031 (Macdonald & Burnham, 2011). The IUCN places the grey squirrel in its top 100 most invasive species.
Grey squirrels outcompete red squirrels for resources: whilst both species feed predominantly on seeds and fruit throughout the year, they are capable of adapting their diet to take advantage of the seasonal abundance of different foods. Specifically, red squirrels eat acorns, berries, fungi, bark and sap tissue; soil and tree bark are also eaten, probably for roughage and minerals. Grey squirrels will eat mast (mast is the fruit of forest trees such as oak and beech), tree shoots, flowers, samaras (the key seeds of the field maple and sycamore), nuts, fruit, roots, cereals and sap tissue. Both species occasionally eat insects, eggs and young birds from nests, although on a larger scale squirrels are not thought to be significant predators of avians (Newson et al.). Grey squirrels will scavenge leftovers, eating southern fried chicken and ice cream cones from bins, as well as raiding bird feeders.
Red squirrels spend most of their time in the canopy and only around a third of their time on the ground whereas the grey squirrel spends almost all of its time foraging on the ground. Grey squirrels will also eat food before it ripens, quite literally beating the red squirrels to the resource. Grey squirrels put on more weight enabling them to go into the winter in better condition, giving them more chance of surviving periods of scarcity. Mortality rates vary between species and populations, and are strongly correlated with the mast crop, with greater numbers of squirrels surviving after a good mast year. Predators include foxes, cats, pine martens, dogs, owls, buzzards, goshawks, whilst stoats, weasels, mink and snakes will take kittens (young). Starvation is a significant threat but the most substantial threat is being hit by vehicles with mortality of 78% in some incidences where feeders lure squirrels into gardens across busy roads. The grey squirrel is also a carrier of the Squirrel Pox Virus, to which the grey squirrels are generally immune but red squirrels are fatally susceptible within two weeks. By 1979 red squirrels were regarded as highly uncommon with diminishing populations amidst a sea of grey squirrels.
The red squirrel is now a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Brownsea Island in Dorset, and Anglesey off the north-west coast of Wales are examples of areas within the UK where the forests are being managed to support red squirrels and the grey squirrel is actively culled. The grey squirrel is being demonised by the red squirrel lobby.
Beatrix Potter’s creation of Squirrel Nutkin, published in 1903, has been used to transform the fate of the red squirrel from bane of the forester’s life to national emblem, but it has also been used to define a peculiar form of ‘Englishness’, alongside red telephone boxes, warm beer and cricket bats. During an impassioned squirrel debate in the House of Lords, Lord Inglewood of Cumbria identified the red squirrel as the most ‘lovable and loved of our British native animals’. Lord Inglewood urged celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, to promote eating grey squirrels in his campaign to revolutionise school meals. Lord Redesdale, whose seat is in Northumberland, where a population of red squirrels is present, agreed, declaring ‘if you can’t beat them, eat them’ and has founded the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership whose mission is simply to ‘kill grey squirrels’ (BBC, 2006). In another debate in 2006 Lady Saltoun of Abernethy pronounced the red squirrels innate superiority over the grey squirrel. Cloaking reds in the admirable qualities of a better class of person, she observed that they are ‘rather like quiet, well behaved people, who do not make a nuisance or an exhibition of themselves, or commit crimes, and so do not get themselves into the papers in the vulgar way that grey squirrels do’ (Parliamentary publications, 2008)… Media coverage of this has been cited as the cause of anti-Americanism.
A paper published in 2014 indicates that the presence of the native European pine marten, Martes martes, has a positive correlation with the population crash in the Irish Midlands of the grey squirrel and the native red squirrel population is increasing in these areas. It is thought that the red squirrel, being smaller, can escape to the furthest branches whereas the grey squirrel falls victim to the attentions of a native predator (Sheehy, E. & Lawton, C., 2014).
We’re beginning to understand that ecosystems are complex structures and predators such as pine martens have a place; by eradicating them from an area, we upset the natural balance that has been achieved over time. By introducing non-native species we also upset the balance. In the long term the grey squirrel may be the nail in the coffin of the red squirrel, it may only be a temporary guest or it may come to share equitably a place in our landscape. Whatever happens they will always have a welcome at my bird table and I’ll always be amused at the look of bewildered consternation on Sidbury’s face.
More about Maligned Species project here
Monies from Poetry on Grey Squirrels ebook (£2.99 available from Fair Acre Press from February 2016) will be donated to Shropshire Wildlife Trust
British Broadcasting Corporation. (2006). Jamie ‘must back squirrel-eating’. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4835690.stm. Last accessed 19th October 2015.
Broome and Johnson. (2001). An Evaluation of the Costs of Grey Squirrel Bark-Stripping Damage in British Woodlands. Forestry Commission.
Macdonald, D. and Burnham, D. (2011). The state of Britain’s mammals a focus on invasive species. People’s Trust for Endangered Species.
MAF. 1943. Memorandum to executive officers of County War Agricultural Executive Committees in England and Wales, destruction of grey squirrels: Grey Squirrels Order. MAF 44/45
Newson, S., Rexstad, E., Baillie, S., Buckland, S. & Aebischer, N. (2010). Population changes of avian predators and grey squirrels in England: is there evidence for an impact on avian prey populations? Journal of Applied Ecology.
Parliamentary publications. (23rd Jan 2008). Column 221 House of Lords. Available: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldhansrd/text/80123-0001.htm. Last accessed 19th October 2015.
Rotherham, I. and Lambert, R. (2011). Invasive and Introduced Plants and Animals: Human Perceptions, Attitudes and Approaches to Management. London: Earthscan. p44.
Sheehy, E. & Lawton, C. (2014). Population crash in an invasive species following the recovery of a native predator: the case of the American grey squirrel and the European pine marten in Ireland. Biodiversity Conservation. 7 (23), 753-774.