When Victorian banker Thomas Brocklehurst returned to England from a transatlantic journey in 1876, he brought with him a pair of American grey squirrels, which he promptly released on the grounds of his estate in Cheshire. Little did he know that doing so would ignite a new battle of sorts between Americans and the British, just 100 years after the American Revolution ended.
The larger, super adaptable and more destructive grey squirrel spent the next century invading towns across the UK, destroying cable lines and trees and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. They also threatened the existence of England’s much timider, native red squirrel, whose numbers began to dangerously dwindle as the grey’s population rose to an estimated 5 million. Today, there are just there are just 120,000 to 140,000 red squirrels in the UK. “Greys don't actually kill reds themselves, as is commonly believed,” Natasha Collings, project coordinator for the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project, told The Guardian. “They spread a deadly pox, causing distinctive ulcerations on their eyes and nose, which kills reds within five to seven days. If you want reds, you have to kill greys. It's a fact."
Local communities across the UK have been trying to stop the spread of grey squirrels since the late 1990s, and in 2006, policies were adopted, and funding was put into place, to begin targeting certain areas for culls. (The Forestry Commission, which has been providing advice on grey squirrel control for over 30 years, recommended squirrel vigilantism in a policy report published in 2005: “We will also encourage landowners to form Grey Squirrel Control Groups in vulnerable areas where sustainability and public benefits are threatened at a landscape scale.”) Guidelines on how to trap greys were distributed, and an organization called The Red Squirrel Survival Trust was set up to raise awareness of the plight of the diminishing reds. “In 2011, Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE) was launched, which for the first time saw the number of fully paid rangers and contract workers working on grey squirrel control in Northern England, working in partnership with other conservation organizations, private landowners and local communities,” says Simon O’ Hare, a Red Squirrel Officer with RSNE. There are similar efforts in areas of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.
The patriotic push to preserve the beloved red squirrel has also seen greys headed from electrical poles to simmering pots in a growing culinary trend edging around the boundaries of mainstream British cuisine. Squirrel pies, a delicacy unheard of since the Victorian era, began reappearing in food circles after the cull began, and plastic-wrapped squirrel meat appeared on the shelves of North London supermarkets. (“May contain shot” from the ammo used to kill the squirrel, according to the label.) The squirrel pie of Leicester-based company, Nice Pie, even won gold at the 2013 British Pie Awards. James Hughes Davies, chief pie maker at Little Jack Horner’s in Somerset, saw his squirrel pies leap off the stands when he began selling them at farmers markets a few years ago, so much so that he couldn’t get enough squirrel meat to satisfy demands.
Horner makes no qualms about helping to revive the edibility of the grey squirrel. “They’re abundant in number, [and] game keepers across the country are being required to trap them just for the sake of the ecosystems they’re protecting,” he says. “If they’re edible and tasty, why not use them?” Horner recommends slow braising and poaching so the meat can gently fall of the bone, and pairing the squirrels with seasonal vegetables like blackberries, red currants, and root vegetables. “They’re not as gamey and rich as you’d think, but they’re not mild either,” he says.
Squirrel meat might not excite your palate, but the culls are helping: According to a three-month study conducted by the Red Squirrels North England partnership project and released in 2013, British red squirrel numbers increased 7 percent from spring 2012, the first time the population had risen in 140 years.