Do you stand with those who see squirrels as bright-eyed, bushy-tailed characters or are they better consigned to the mincer and the pot? Once again, like the urban fox, the Grey Squirrel divides opinion for the people of SE16. A recent food festival in Gloucestershire staged a competition to create a healthy squirrel burger recipe, so as to put the meat back on the menu. So perhaps we will see TV chefs recommending squirrel for supper! The government has finally thrown in the towel and scrapped laws requiring landowners to report the presence of grey squirrels on their land so they can be removed – the squirrels not the landowners! Oliver Heald – Solicitor General – said it was “no longer considered feasible” to eradicate the alien grey squirrels; our elected representatives have seemingly abandoned the native red squirrel population.
The grey squirrel has been around in the UK for about 140 years and has ousted the native species wherever they have come into conflict. A combination of their larger stature, ability to put on more fat for the winter and the impact of squirrel pox has left the red squirrel in the UK numbering only 30,000 in isolated pockets in Scotland and some islands such as Anglesey and the Isle of Wight. So here in London, the grey squirrel rules supreme. Imported from their native North American homeland as a fashionable addition to English estates in the nineteenth century, grey squirrels can now collect their nuts undisturbed and bury them at will.
In Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, grey squirrels are out in our parks and gardens at this time of year harvesting nuts to store for the winter months. Those who have gardens will be only too aware of their seeming perpetual visits to the peanut bird feeder and their ingenuity in obtaining access to the bird food. Squirrels are one of the few mammals that can travel head-first on tree-trunks; they have an unusual ability to turn their rear paws so that their claws point backwards and can grip the bark. Their agility and apparent intelligence make them attractive to watch when faced with a challenge. Indeed in storing their food for the winter – often several thousands each – squirrels show deceptive behaviour that implies they can ascribe to other agents a state of mind other than their own.
Collecting nuts and burying them is habitual behaviour for grey squirrels in autumn. Their spacial memory is quite acute. Squirrels are able to use landmarks both near and far to locate their cache and only rely on scent when nearby. Some caches are temporary and are retrieved within hours or days whilst others may not be retrieved for months. Of course for the trees and other plants involved this is a great way of getting your seeds or nuts planted around the place in abundance; if the squirrel forgets even 1% of their stores, the tree has been helped to make new trees in a very efficient way.
Whatever your take on grey squirrels, they are a very obvious part of our wildlife in SE16. Whether it’s defending your bird table, walking the dog in the park or merely cycling down the road, the furry grey flash with the big tail will catch your eye. We may want to see them fried for breakfast or posted up as film stars but their continued presence is certain!