Ministry of Controversy

England’s red squirrel loses out to the American gray – and what’s the solution?

by Susan
This New York Times Magazine story is a bit of a mind-blower, and in a good way.  It’s the story of the beloved and endangered English red squirrel, and the two radically different approaches to protecting it.  One organization, Save our Squirrels, promotes the red squirrel and establishes refuge areas for them.  The other approach, used by pest control officials, is mass murder of the more vigorous and disease-carrying American gray.  The kill-the-grays advocates assert that reds will never survive as long as grays exist.  But mass murder of cute furry things freaks people out, the article tells us.  It seems that animal rights organizations are pretty darn powerful in the U.K. (Go, Animalhuggers!)

All of which leads the writer to pose a really radical question: Is it necessary to preserve the red squirrel in England, anyway?  That’s heresy, I know, but it’s kinda fun to see conventional wisdom challenged.

Americans don’t seem to be as squeamish about animal welfare as their friends across the pond, so I’m probably in the minority in my reaction to being urged by some American groups to "monitor" birds’ nests – which is the euphemism for getting rid of such nonnative species as English sparrows.  (Hmm. Payback?)  I’ve actually encountered neighbors heading out to rid their yards of them, telling me it has to be done!  I remain unconvinced.

Posted by on October 9, 2007 at 11:48 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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28 responses to “England’s red squirrel loses out to the American gray – and what’s the solution?”

  1. Emma - an English Gardener in New England! says:

    This is a war that has been fought for many years!! Unfortunatley, the red squirrel’s preference for his/her own company versus the grey squirrel’s need to be surrounded by friends means the red has been pushed out of Britain’s woods and forests! Any one who has seen one of these elusive animals will tell you they are way cuter than the bully boy greys!! Plus, our most famous red squirrel, Tufty, has taught generations of British children lessons on road saftey ( I was a member of the Tufty Club in the 70’s!!), has written books, starred in TV commercials, and had his own TV show! What have the Grey Brigade done for us? Dug up lawns, stolen acorns, played evil car dodging games, raided my bird feeders – need I say more!
    My granny used to call the American interlopers “rats with bushy tails”, and I have to say, I have had issues with them trying to live in my house, as have many friends, so she had a point!( Not a problem so much in the UK, where houses are generally built of brick, not wood, so harder to chew into!!) Have not had a red squirrel deided to become a roomie ( yet!).
    Seriously though, it seems the issue is the reds losing food and territory to the greys ( yes, we spell it with an e!), something a lot of Brits have issues with! We are a small but feisty nation, and there are plenty of people still alive who remember the US invasion of WW2 ( the phrase was ” Yanks – over paid, over fed, and over here!”), and many are still pissed that more than a few British maidens were tempted by the US men (and their chocolate and stockings!)whilst their own men were overseas fighting! And therefore we hate American Grey Squirrels! It’s as simple as that!! Ask any British man over age 75!!

  2. firefly says:

    As an American of British extraction also living in New England, whose family saw fit to emigrate “over here” in the 1790s (and whose father volunteered to fight in WWII), I have one thing to say, Emma:

    Watch it.

    Gray squirrels are indeed pests, but they weren’t engineered by Americans — and the US wouldn’t be the US without “the sun never sets” British imperialism as an example.

  3. Tai Haku says:

    I’d have a lot more faith in that article if the accompanying image was actually of the aforementioned red squirrel!

    There are a few other issues in play besides saving our native red – your yankee squirrels cause a lot of expensive damage to trees (fruit/commercial ones) as well and are implicated in damaging the fortunes of a number of other species (like the endangered hazel dormice)…and their population is growing like mad. “Mass murder” is not the answer but some sort of control/cull is realistically needed. Currently favoured is some sort of super squirrel contraceptive thingy apparently.

    TO be honest the only thing I found mind-blowing about the NYt article was how patronising a treatment of an interesting and important subject (the enxus between animal rights issues and conservation issues where the two don’t go hand in hand) it was.

  4. susan harris says:

    Good call, Tai Haku – the tone WAS patronizing.

  5. tibs says:

    Well we have the black squirrel driving out the grey and the red and devouring bird feed. This was supposedly brought to our town from Canada. Actually think they are some type of grey sq. but they are smaller and very very rodently looking.

  6. Emma - an English Gardener in New England! says:

    OK, would all my American friends please watch a couple of episodes of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers , and learn about British comedy/sarcasm!!!
    That said, of course we Brits realize Grey squirrels were not sent to Britain, but rather reverse immigrated back in the days of Mayflower and Speedwell ( the ships, not the plants!).No-ones fault!As did the Red, I have 2 living in my yard that regularly beat up on any Grey that gets too close!!
    Now Black squirrels – they’re nasty – read a report about a gang of ’em attacking a dog in Moscow once!

  7. Pamela says:

    This spring I had a robin nest in the grapevine draped along my shop porch. Every morning when I went to work I would tell the robin hello. Every morning, that is, until some thug sparrows chased her out of her nest and destroyed her eggs. The sparrows had designs on her nest, but I didn’t think I could look at them every morning, so they had to move on. As an avowed Animalhugger, I could never have killed the sparrows, but I can empathize with the red squirrel protectors.
    On another point, Emma,I didn’t realize that the U.S. had invaded England; I thought it was more an idea of assisting. My Irish grandfather would scoff at any allusions to a U.S. invasion of England.

  8. tai haku says:

    Its perhaps worth pointing out that our poor defenseless red squirrels are a completely different species to your american red squirrels lest anyone be confused.

  9. Dr Rebecca Harding sheds a bit of light on this subject of details of reintroducing red squirrels and encouraging folk to eat grey squirrels http://www.wigglywigglers.co.uk/podcasts I think its 58 and number 70 is where we try tasting them, which is probably the best result in terms of usefulness, sustainability and balance.

  10. sandra says:

    I remember seeing a red squirrel in hazel copses near Castell Coch in South Wales in the 1950s. It was such a dainty ethereal sprite, but even then the forester at Castell Coch was surprised that I had seen one, as he thought that they were already rare in the region. They are totally unlike the grey and black squirrels in Eastern Canada and even prettier than the red squirrel that uses the alley power lines as a highway and semi-hibenated a couple of winters ago in our garden branch pile here in Western Canada.

  11. sandra says:

    Looking at the photo again, I am sure that Tai Haku is right, my memory is that the ears were more tufted at the top. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy of Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin (the original not a Disney bawlerization) to consult, as I bet she got it right.

  12. Heather Gorringe is right on. Granted, I haven’t eaten a squirrel before, but it makes sense to actually use them for something rather than just exterminate them. Humans are really good at overexploiting species. How about overexploiting an invasive one? It can be a harvest. Doesn’t that sound nice?

    It takes management these days to hold onto the natural diversity we have. Of course red squirrels are worth saving.

  13. Brooke says:

    That’s funny. We could all start eating the “free range” squirrels.

  14. AnneBrygger says:

    You can eat squirrels. I had a friend who did while an impoverished grad student in NYC. He’d catch them in Riverside Park.

    Actually, The Joy of Cooking has excellent instructions for preparation and cooking of squirrels. They say the grey are preferrable to red (although this would be American squirrels, mind you).

    The black squirrels in N America are just melanistic grey squirrels.

  15. Marte says:

    This is an interesting discussion. I have many, many grey squirrels here in my Minnesota garden, and once in a while we see a red one. The reds are much more destructive than the grey ones here, so we try to chase them away. Thanks for pointing out that it’s a different species, tai haku.

  16. Tai Haku says:

    Coincidentally another (in my view better) article on the same chap today here puts in slightly better perspective exactly what he’s trying to achieve.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2007/10/10/easquir110.xml

  17. Emma - an English Gardener in New England! says:

    So, here’e a thought…. how do we know if the grey squirrels ARE non-native? They could have gone to America with the Viking fur traders, then been killed by a plague or hunted out of existance back in Britain, leaving the Reds to claim dominance!! Then I started thinking, hmm, so how do we know just what is a native species, and what has been introduced? Britain has been invaded by Romans, Angles , Saxons ,Normans,Vikings to name the best known, and has traded far and wide since before the English Channel even existed,so who knows if ,say, the house sparrow, is a true native!! Boy, I hope it stops rainig soon, my brain is starting to go to some strange places!!

  18. Tibs says:

    I see a conspircy. It is an evil plot to rid the country of all alien life forms. Today little furry critters. Tomorrow bigger invading species. (Insert B-movie mad scientist laugh here.)

  19. alan portlock says:

    Grey squirrel are vermin. I shoot any that venture into my garden, I’ve bagged over 20 in recent weeks. I haven’t tried eating squirrel yet but I reckon that is what I’ll do with the next ones.

  20. Arthur Rice says:

    To all Brits:

    I would gladly trade the Greys for the english sparrows and Starlings that have invaded here.

  21. Holly Davenport says:

    I just watched on Sunday Morning about Brits killing (with guns!) American gray squirrels and I must say I am OUTRAGED! Do you people have such an INFERIORITY complex that the thought of an animal doing nothing but surviving sends hatred up your uptight, rigid spines? IT IS A SQUIRREL! If the sensitive reds were better at survival, they wouldn’t be becoming extinct! I can understand trying to keep them, why isn’t there a breeding program for reds? I can even understand the birth control for grays.. but shooting them? So these little nut gathering, sweet animals (I have raised grays without their moms and I can tell you they are funny, spirited, sweet little balls of fun!)have to suffer, sometimes being maimed and not killed outright. Also, leaving babies with dead moms to suffer and die slowly – SIMPLY BECAUSE OF AN OBVIOUS INFERIORITY COMPLEX AND JEALOUSY OF AMERICANS “TAKING OVER” WITH THEIR AGGRESSIVNESS!? How small minded can you get! When it is time to meet your maker, you gun toting morons will have alot of explaining to do!

  22. Dave Davis - St Louis says:

    Hey, Brits! So get rid of the greys! We periodically eliminate grey squirrels in our urban neighborhood when they overrun our garden tomatoes and flower beds, and dig up the lawn (burying their food).
    Squirrels are territorial, staying close to the tree with the family nest. Our local Humane Society loans out ‘humane’ wire traps, which we ring around the nesting tree. Set the traps in the evening; squirrels sleep at night, and hunt in the early morning. Bait them with peanut butter, which greys love.
    Every morning, collect the live trapped squirrels. How you empty the traps becomes a moral issue.
    Although the Humane Society encourages trap and release, my surgeon neighbor lowers the trapped squirrel into a drum of water. Ugly, but effective. In several days, the entire nest is empty of squirrels.
    Oh yes, don’t let your children try to play with caged squirrels. They have sharp teeth and a mean disposition. They also can carry rabies.

  23. Dave Davis - St Louis says:

    Hey, Brits! So get rid of the greys! We periodically eliminate grey squirrels in our urban neighborhood when they overrun our garden tomatoes and flower beds, and dig up the lawn (burying their food).
    Squirrels are territorial, staying close to the tree with the family nest. Our local Humane Society loans out ‘humane’ wire traps, which we ring around the nesting tree. Set the traps in the evening; squirrels sleep at night, and hunt in the early morning. Bait them with peanut butter, which greys love.
    Every morning, collect the live trapped squirrels. How you empty the traps becomes a moral issue.
    Although the Humane Society encourages trap and release, my surgeon neighbor lowers the trapped squirrel into a drum of water. Ugly, but effective. In several days, the entire nest is empty of squirrels.
    Oh yes, don’t let your children try to play with caged squirrels. They have sharp teeth and a mean disposition. They also can carry rabies.

  24. Dan Doyle says:

    I am curious to know how the American gray squirrel got into England in the first place. Anyone have information on this?

  25. Brian Knyght says:

    Hey, there were grey and red squirrels living in harmony in my trees in N. America for the first 15 years of my life, then the greys came along. They bred faster. They ate the eggs of all the Cedar Waxwings. They live in Oak trees, they used to make nests in them. Now they don’t even bother to bury their food. They just leave it on the ground. Spontaneous keg parties pop up after hours on the back lawn, they get in the pool, they leave trash everywhere and hurl acorns at the windows. They chase birds and you don’t want to know what happens when they catch them, it’s the worst possible scenario.
    There is a solution, PEPPER. Spray them, mix it in your fertilizer, put it in your plants and garden, the stronger the better. They make some pretty powerful hot sauces that will do the trick. Once they get some of that they will not be back. Chapped lips on a squirrel is pretty bad, irritated mouths will cause them to starve, they have a very high metabolism. They won’t want to be in your area again. Do this in a countrywide sweep to push them into the sea, they’ll jump in willingly to get it off them. They pushed our red and black squirrels to near extinction, don’t let it happen to yours.

  26. Andrew Doyle says:

    I don’t understand what the hang-up is with exterminating the grays. They are in a habitat that wasn’t supposed to be theirs in the first place. I say exterminate all the grays in England before it’s too late. I don’t think the U.S. suffers from a shortage of grays. In fact, I would like to see more owls in the U.S. to thin the population here as well.

  27. Blaine says:

    The (American) Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)is not native to the west coast of North America either. It is considered an invasive species here in British Columiba, Canada.
    Paticularly here on Vancouver Island where it is displacing the local red squirrel.

    Brochure from our provincial government about it:

    http://wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/vir/wildweb/Greysquirrelbrchr_Dec06.pdf

  28. Connie says:

    Well, I use to think that those gray squirrel were so beautiful and enjoyed looking at them. Till they came into my yard and ate/stole EVERY walnut off my walnut tree. I bought a pellet gun and got a depredation permit and shot 4 of them 6 more to go!( permit allows 10) It is just not fair I’m a vegan and I use those nuts for my food. If i wanted a big beautiful shade tree I would have planted something else. Humboldt gardener.

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