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Country Notes

Nutkin’s Law

Why we should all eat squirrel

From the kitchen, drowning out Melvyn Bragg’s lofty Cumbrian tones, came a prolonged and uncharacteristically foulmouthed cry. It must have been a little after 9am and it was clear something calamitous was happening.

Pushing my aged Jack Russell from my lap, I made off across the hall to investigate. Then I saw it too, loping up the garden path. There was something sinister about his gait and every few paces he would stop, tilt his head back, and sniff the autumnal air.

For years there had been whisperings. Late in the village pub at night, people would talk of silhouettes seen after dark and strange scratchings on the trees. At first I had been in denial, but when I saw him, it was almost as though I had known for some time that the moment would eventually come.

Next to the hearth stood a shotgun, which I was taking with me on a journey east that evening. Picking it up, I dropped a cartridge into the top chamber and crawled across the flagstones so as to not be seen through the window. Then, in one quick motion, I kicked open the back door, pulled the stock against my cheek and fired, sending my worst fear tumbling across the dewy grass.

For as long as anyone can remember, the little pocket of south-west Scotland I live in has been a refuge for native red squirrels, a bastion of Britain holding out against the disease-ridden greys. Introduced to Henbury Park in Cheshire from the US in 1876, the invaders carry a pox to which our pointy-eared reds have no immunity. The creature that lay on its back in my flowerbed was a scout, a bushy-tailed pioneer pushing into new territory. I — still wearing my dressing- gown — had won the mid-morning battle, but all bets are on that creature’s fluffy comrades to win the war. As things stand, there are more than 2.5 million greys in the UK, while there are now just 10,000 reds.

We can’t bow out and let the bears loose in the hope that they will right our wrongs

Some weeks later in Suffolk I was standing on a sunny lawn at a wedding reception when I got talking to a young woman who works for the Wildlife Trust, an organisation with 2,300 reserves, covering more than 98,000 acres. As three glasses of champagne blurred into four, we got onto the topic of badgers. She agreed their ever-growing population is contributing to a worrying decline of ground-nesting birds such as curlew, on which they predate. The answer, she suggested sagely while reaching for another vol-au-vent, is a “fully functioning eco-system” — in other words, rewilding. For the uninitiated, the thinking goes that if we reintroduced apex predators such as bears and wolves, they would chow down on badgers, reducing their numbers considerably, at which point ground-nesting birds would be out of the woods.

As sexy an idea as it is, the potential success of such a strategy is questionable. There are 288,000 badgers in Britain and bears, to take my favourite potential predator, only ever eat the odd badger cub. The adult badger’s tough, loose-fitting skin means that if a creature does get hold of them they can turn and launch a counterattack with their strong jaws. Interestingly, their stripy faces are thought be a warning to predators to think twice.

Letting large predators loose is massively controversial and it would clearly never be an option in well-populated countryside. In short, it’s not going to be something that gets implemented by next year, but what will have happened by then is that the curlew, of which we have lost more than 48 per cent since the 1990s, will be further down the road to extinction.

To parrot Greta Thunberg, we must act as if “we are in a crisis because we are” and “we must take action”. We have made a hash of our countryside and done the creatures that live in it a huge disservice. But we can’t bow out and let the bears loose in the hope that they will right our wrongs. Thankfully we are at a point in the ground-nesting bird/badger balance when we can still put things right — and that means systematic culling.

The self-described “radical lawyer” Michael Mansfield QC recently made headlines by saying, “When we look at the damage eating meat is doing to the planet, it is not preposterous to think that one day it will become illegal.” In the interests of wildlife I would like him to go one further and propose a law — let’s call it “Nutkin’s law” — which decrees that every British citizen should consume one grey squirrel and a portion of badger a year. Not that long ago badger ham was a popular West Country dish, and as for the squirrel I shot in my garden, he was memorable rolled in breadcrumbs, shallow fried and served with a chilli relish. Rewilding’s not the solution but eating meat just might be. It’s just a matter of what sort of meat — so leave that beef brisket on the shelf and expand your horizons. Our wildlife needs you to eat the enemy.

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