Food for thought

Is it worth trapping the squirrels in my London garden?

Country Notes

This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I have no doubt some people really thrive on working from home but for the most part, I’m never very convinced it’s productive. Whenever I “WFH”, I usually end up training my spaniel, cooking complicated things with the slow cooker, or go out to the Nag’s Head, where old Irishmen sit at the bar whilst watching racing on a small telly.

Last week, on a cold Tuesday morning, I was at the local junk shop having a look at a chair whilst I should have been at home writing. I noticed, as I was trying to decide whether it would be worth getting it reupholstered, that the only other customer in the shop was (judging by the words on his polo shirt) a professional pest controller.

With limited enthusiasm for heading home to face some edits from my publisher, I asked the guy a question that had been troubling me for some time. Is it, I wanted to know, worth trapping the squirrels in my London garden — or am I pissing in the proverbial wind? The man looked me up and down and told me, “Actually, fella, it’s illegal.” I pressed him on what he meant and he chewed at his lip. “Yeah,” he went on. “If you’re catching ’em and then you release ’em back in the park or whatever. It’s illegal because they’re non-native and they’ll just find their way back anyway.” He started to justify to me why it is that he doesn’t release them alive, when I cut him off. “Don’t worry,” I reassured him. “I don’t release them alive. I shoot them in the back of the head.”

The pest controller nodded in a comradely way and proceeded to tell me at length about how much he hates grey squirrels. At this point, I decided I really did need to get back to my desk. But as I wandered home, I felt sort of annoyed by the whole thing. I’d been waging war on the squirrels in my garden because they both destroy anything I plant and raid the nests of birds. But I couldn’t agree with the pest controller that they are “totally stupid” or “just vermin really”.

Over the past ten days, I’ve caught nine of them. Dispatching them at close quarters in my flat with an air rifle, whilst they’re in the trap (which is totally legal before you call the RSPCA), always fills me with sadness. It’s not their fault that the myopic 11th Duke of Bedford thought he’d spend the 1890s releasing greys (which were imported from America) to beautify the grounds of Woburn Abbey. The result is that we now have almost three million of them in Britain, which cause untold ecological damage.

Perhaps most significantly, they are responsible for killing off the native red squirrel. But another, more complicated but also tragic consequence is the hateful relationship lots of people have with them. It doesn’t, to my mind, do us any good as a species to regard another species on this planet as “vermin”. The odd thing is that talking to a wildfowler about their love of geese, or a ferreter about their love of rabbits, is a great antidote to hearing the callousness of an urban pest controller talking about grey squirrels.

Just before I left London for Easter, a young butcher I know sent me a message asking whether I could source her some venison offal for a project she’s working on. I told her I was going to struggle but did she, I wondered, want a few squirrels. The place I was heading to in Norfolk, I explained, has a big squirrel problem — not urban ones who get at the bins, but well-fed little country squirrels. They strip the bark off trees there, and they eat through the walnuts before they ripen. “That,” she replied, “would be very exciting.” On the Saturday, after having a big bonfire a couple of fields away, I went out into the garden to see what was about. It didn’t take long before a squirrel came running through the trees about 40 yards out. It fell to my first barrel, landing with a plop in the Stiffkey. Somewhere over the wall, pilgrims at the shrine in Walsingham were singing, and I stood listening for a while before dropping another squirrel as it scampered up the oak trunk above me.

I skinned them on the Sunday afternoon, carefully leaving the offal in as requested. It’s strange really — they smell pretty strong, they require a fair bit of slow cooking or marinading, and quite what Flora is going to do with them, I don’t know — but I’m glad she’s going to do something. Preparing wild creatures and eating them is a complex form of respect, and it’s the least we can do for the grey squirrel.

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