A twist in the tail: To love or hate a squirrel – whatever the colour.

Image above: A grey squirrel by Jo Gilbert. 

People often ask me if there is any animal I dislike. “No, not really”, is my response. All creatures have a place in the world and deserve respect. However, I must confess to having a love/hate relationship with grey squirrels.

Cute and fluffy grey with those big eyes and a white bib, who could resist such an endearing creature? It is not that they are an invasive species that makes our relationship strained. After all, it is not the fault of the grey squirrel that they were shipped over from America in the late 1800s to decorate British Estates. That was our doing. Neither did they plan with menace to arrive on our shores carrying squirrel pox, which has sadly added to the decline of our native Eurasian reds.

Just to prove that I do not hate the fluffy tailed grey cuties, I have hand-reared orphaned youngsters in the past.  Feeding these babies whilst they hold the feeding bottle and suck away contentedly is enough to melt even the hardest of hearts. Their little eyes (once opened) stare up at you and their little paws hold on tight and if you are lucky, they might have a little snooze on the towel you have on your knee.

To see them snuggle up together is a treat. It is fun to watch them master the technique of climbing on tree branches and other natural objects put into their cage to help with their development. It is rewarding to see them ween onto solids and gain weight. These lovely babies do have a habit of changing personalities almost overnight though. I refer to it as “teenage vampire”. One morning you will go to weigh them, and they have become a flurry of angry, petulant, and rather bitey grey devils. This is the stage (after bandaging your finger) you pack them up and return them to the Rescue Centre where you volunteer. They are ready to move into an outside environment and on to the next stage of their rehabilitation and release.

Image above: an orphaned baby squirrel, orphaned baby squirrels – by Jo Gilbert

Then again, this is the behaviour you want from a rescued wild animal. You do not want them to be happy around humans. When they reach the teenage vampire stage you can congratulate yourself on a job well done. My baby squirrel rearing days are now over. You are no longer allowed to rescue, rehabilitate, and release grey squirrels by law, due to their status as an invasive species.

Grey squirrels are feisty. I am told that the red squirrel is feistier, but I have only twice had the pleasure of meeting one in the wild, so I cannot make a comparison.

Many times, I have had a woodland walk and heard quite an animated chatter above my head and been hit by small twigs or beech nuts. When looking up there was a grey having a good old shout at me. Next time you hear a lot of chatter and think it is a bird, look up, it may well be squirrels having a bit of a shouting match at you or each other.

Image above: a grey squirrel by Jo Gilbert

So, what is my problem with them?

We have had the good fortune to own a property in Devon for several years. There is an area of land that is always a bit boggy and not much use, so I planted a mixture of willow and Alder on it. Twenty-six trees in all, about 3ft tall. Living on a hill just down from Exmoor means we get a wide range of weathers. I spent 4 years in wind and rain making sure these trees did not fall over. I put guards around the Alders to keep deer from eating them. After 4 years not one tree was lost, and they were flourishing. I felt my job was done. Imagine my horror one morning to find large pieces of Willow on the ground. I mean large pieces, at least 6 foot long, and lots of them. After reminding myself that there are no giraffes in Devon, I realised the culprits were grey squirrels.

I had a chat with a forester who told me that 4 years growth is about the time squirrels take a fancy to trees. Beech, Oak and Willow being a favourite (if only I had known!). They are viewed as a menace by anyone trying to grow woodland or forests costing the forestry commission over £37 million a year.

They tend to strip the bark off the trees meaning the tree either dies, becomes infested with fungi, or is deformed and more likely to break in bad weather.

No one is sure why squirrels strip bark from trees. There are several theories. One being they desire the energy from the sap to be found below the bark.  Some researchers theorise that the females tend to strip bark more during pregnancy to gain extra energy.  Other researchers believe it may be a distraction/anxiety behaviour and happens when squirrel population densities are high in a particular area.

Image above: eurasian red squirrel in Dumfriesshire: Photo credit – S. J. Bromilow.

Combine the tree damage and the threat of squirrel pox to the survival of our native reds, and some may have reason to cull the grey squirrel. A more recent solution has been to introduce contraception to grey squirrel populations. These choices have created lively debates about the ethical and moral standing of such decisions. A more natural option (in my opinion) is the work of organisations such as Vincent Wildlife Trust who are reintroducing Pine Martens into areas where greys are dominant. The martens are predators of squirrels and where the red is small enough to reach thin branches that will not hold the weight of a marten, the grey cannot. The grey tends to spend more time on the ground than the red, which makes them more likely to suffer at the jaws of a hungry marten.

Of course, there was a time when we use to cull our native red squirrels for stripping bark and damaging trees. It is estimated that 82 thousand were culled across Scotland between 1903 and 1933.

This is a bit ironic, bearing in mind the first reduction in the red squirrel population numbers in Britain was when humans cut down forests in the Scottish Highlands. Damage to forests on a large scale! Reintroductions of red squirrels were made from Scandinavia coinciding with the replanting of forested areas in Scotland. So, the grey squirrel alone has not been wholly responsible for the decline of our native species.

Why do Greys fare better than the Eurasian Red?

It is worth considering why the grey appears to survive and flourish better than the reds. Firstly, they are larger in size and tend to be more robust, not suffering from the diseases that affect the reds. They can also digest foods with a high tannin content. This means they can easily digest green acorns, whereas the red must wait for them to ripen. By the time that has happened, a large part of this food resource will already have been consumed by Mr Grey. Red squirrels tend to fare better in coniferous forests (they can be found in deciduous forests, but research shows they can have poorer body condition) and the grey appears to fare well in both coniferous and deciduous woods, forests, and parklands.

Image above: eurasian red squirrel in Dumfriesshire: Photo credit – S. J. Bromilow. 

This means there is more habitat suitable for the grey than the red. Fragmentation of habitat is therefore more likely to affect the red than the grey.  Finally, the grey has been proven to be smarter than the red. Research at Exeter University has shown that the grey squirrel is quickest to work out puzzles to access food.  This means the grey could well have the upper hand when it comes to finding food resources and adapting to new environments. Although the photograph below shows that the reds are not exactly stupid when it comes to finding a tasty hazelnut to eat!

What of my Willows? They survived the onslaught.  It is a tree that doesn’t mind a bit of coppicing.  So, we have a truce. Mr Grey shouts and stamps his feet at me, and I do the same back.  Will I ever be shouting at a squirrel Nutkin?  I doubt it. Areas of Britain are seeing the return of red squirrels but only in carefully managed areas with new conifer or mixed plantations and “buffer zones” to keep out the grey.  Maybe we should just try and love what we have.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: The Chiswick Calendar Club Card scheme

See also: ***link to emery walker piece when published***

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

Support The Chiswick Calendar

The Chiswick Calendar CIC is a community resource. Please support us by buying us the equivalent of a monthly cup of coffee (or more, if you insist). Click here to support us.

We publish a weekly newsletter and update the website with local news and information daily. We are editorially independent.