There are around 2.5 million squirrels in the UK1. All of them, correction, all of the grey squirrels, are currently hunted by volunteers and sterilized by the government. This quiet massacre of squirrels was ordered, with little objection, by the UK government in October 20192.

 

Why? I’ve been trying to figure this out. You’d think that in the midst of the sixth mass extinction when our human impact has caused the population of wildlife to fall a shocking 68% in the last fifty years3, eradicating a wild animal would be illegal, not law enforced. 

 

The primary justification for shooting grey squirrels is that they are an indirect threat to red squirrels. Red or grey, what’s the difference, you may ask? Apart from some physical features, like hair tufts on ears, the colour of their fur and their size, the main distinction, and the one the UK seems to care very much about, is their origins. The greys are from America, the reds from the UK - or so we thought. The misconception is that the reds are ‘native’ (whatever that means these days), and the grey ‘invasive’, but DNA tests clearly show that a majority of the red population are in fact Scandinavian4. After the reds were persecuted (yes, the reds were also persecuted), to near extinction in the late 18th century4, the government figured it was a mistake, and reintroduced them from Scandinavia. Ironically, the grey squirrels arrived before this re-introduction, and are, therefore, more “native” than the reds4.  

 

Another reason why each squirrel at some point has been persecuted is because of the damage they do to trees. In the search for nutrients hidden behind tree bark, squirrels gnaw their way around the tree, sometimes making the tree ‘bleed out’ and die. OK, this might sound like a good reason for disliking the squirrels - clearly, we do need trees. But, let’s zoom out for a minute; complex ecosystems like forests are interconnected with other forest-beings. Squirrels do a fantastic job at planting trees. They are quite forgetful (cute, right?) and leave behind 30% of the nuts they bury5. Squirrels bury up to ten thousand nuts each autumn, leaving an estimated 3000 behind, per squirrel. I’m sure you’ve already done the quick math in your head and realised that the 2.5 million squirrels help us with forest regeneration much more efficiently than the 1.46 million trees human volunteers planted last year in the UK6.

 

Then there is the argument about squirrels being a threat to birdlife. This propaganda, which is spread by red squirrel conservationists, is a long-time debunked myth. Squirrels are vegetarians, and only on very rare occasions in scarce habitats are they desperate enough to momentarily include bird eggs in their diet7. Although if there is consensus for the killing of an animal due to their destruction of birdlife, look no further than to your homes, where a skilled predator roams around and kills, not out of necessity, but for pure fun. UK’s 11 million domesticated8, (ahem) invasive cats are responsible for the death of an estimated 27 million wild birds each year and around 92 million wild prey in total9.

 

After all this research, I’m still left with the question I started off with; why? I can only see the law of culling (that’s a nice word for killing) of all grey squirrels in the UK as absurd, and so my design proposal will be a bizarre one too; let’s paint the squirrels red! I’ll make a spray tanning booth for the grey squirrels, where they’ll be sprayed with henna copper colour, and be adored by the British population for being a cute red squirrel, not a dirty grey one. 

  1. https://www.gwct.org.uk/research/long-term-monitoring/national-gamebag-census/mammal-bags-comprehensive-overviews/grey-squirrel/

  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/march-2019-update-invasive-non-native-species-and-grey-squirrels

  3. https://www.wwf.org.uk/press-release/living-planet-report-2020

  4. Hale, M.L., Lurz, P.W.W. & Wolff, K. (2004) Patterns of genetic diversity in the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris L.): Footprints of biogeographic history and artificial introductions. Conservation Genetics, 5: 167-179

  5. Goheen, J.R. & Swihart, R.K. (2003) Food-hoarding behaviour of grey squirrels and North American red squirrels in the central hardwoods region: implications for forest regeneration. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 81: 1636-1639

  6. https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/press-centre/2020/06/government-planting-figures/

  7. Hewson, C.M. & Fuller, R.J. (2003) Impacts of Grey Squirrels on Woodland Birds: An Important Predator of Eggs and Young?  British Trust for Ornithology, Research Report No. 328

  8. https://www.cats.org.uk/cats-blog/how-many-cats-in-the-uk

  9. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1365-2907.2003.00017.x

  10. Hanna Velten (2013) Beastly London: a History of Animals in the City, 7: 216-238

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