Grey squirrels. Seems you love ’em or you hate ’em. On the one hand they’re cute, they’re cheeky and they’re adorable. But they are not native to the UK and they cause damage to trees, can create havoc in your flower beds, steal the birds food, can actually be dangerous if they get into your loft and near your wires and of course they are solely responsible for the decline in numbers of the Red Squirrel.
Well, actually no. Red Squirrels are delicate little things who require very specific habitats to thrive. This habitat being large areas of pine forest and little disturbance from man. But there is very little of this sort of environment left in the UK now. Whether there were Grey Squirrels in this country or not, Reds simply would not survive in urban parks and the sort of areas that the greys are doing so well in. Red squirrels were also dying from pox viruses long before greys arrived on our shores. It’s not all that long ago that we hunted red squirrels almost to extinction so man has played a huge part in the decline of the red squirrel both directly in culling them and indirectly in destroying their habitat.
So with that out of the way let’s deal with the problems that they do cause.
- Digging up bulbs and plants
Squirrels don’t hibernate but they do stash food ready for the winter. So they will quite often dig holes to bury treats or search for old ones which can disrupt freshly planted bulbs. You can discourage the squirrels from rummaging in your borders using several deterrents. Dog faeces or used cat litter of course smell of a predator, or there are several products you can buy from DIY stores or garden centres such as Scoot, Keep Off My Garden or Squirrel Away.
- Stealing the bird’s food
It can be frustrating when you are trying to support needy birds such as sparrows, and squirrels come along and steal the food before they can get to it. First of all the easiest method of feeding birds for the squirrels to intercept is the normal bird table. This isn’t a recommended method anyway largely because it is unhygienic and can cause problems during the baby season. Unsuitable food stuffs such as bread are often put out on these tables and this is really not ideal for wildlife. A bird table’s easy accessibility can also attract rats and mice. The best thing you can do for your feathered visitors is offer specially formulated bird foods hung in a good sturdy squirrel proof feeder. Not only do these protect the food from squirrels and larger birds such as pigeons, but it means the birds can only access small pieces at a time through the mesh which are far more suitable for them to then feed their young with. It is worth investing in a high quality squirrel proof feeder if you are serious about helping birds in your garden. There are also several commercially available products such as “Squirrel Away” which are made from pepper which can be added to the bird food. Squirrels hate the taste but the birds don’t mind it at all.
- Getting in the loft
When it comes to baby squirrel time houses just look like funny big trees really. Squirrel instinct says climb it and find somewhere snug inside it. So that’s what they do. You might not even know they’re there until one day you hear a gnawing noise and you go to investigate and find little tooth marks in your beams and joists and, even more worryingly, in your wiring. This is a genuine concern and, much as we love squirrels, they’re not ideal lodgers. Thankfully this is a relatively simple thing to solve.
First of all you need to make the loft less attractive to the squirrel. The same smells used to deter the squirrel from your flower bed work well here. You can also leave lights on up there and put a detuned radio in to provide visual and auditory disturbance. Go up in the loft and make noise and stomp around several times a day if you can. Once your loft is no longer a safe, dark, quiet, peaceful place you should find the squirrels move on. Once they have done so it is advisable to have your eaves boarded using UPvC – not with wood as they can simply chew back through. Once the eaves have been boarded you need to do a careful check for any remaining squirrels, particularly babies. Try to avoid sealing the eaves between March and September when squirrels are breeding. Check any piles of material near the edges and in corners for little occupants to make sure no-one gets left behind. If there are older squirrels left in the loft you could put a humane cage trap up there to catch them. These are easily found in pet shops or in lots of places on line.
A word of warning though. It is illegal to release a squirrel once it is trapped in this way unless you have a license. For this reason avoid calling in a pest control company to humane trap a squirrel for you as they most likely kill it – if they claim otherwise, ask to see their license to release the squirrel. Your local wildlife rescue may have a cage you can borrow or you can usually buy them for as little as £20. Then bait the trap with tasty treats such as cake or chocolate and check it regularly (every few hours as squirrels do become quite distressed in them and can injure their noses trying to chew out). Once you have the squirrel you can then take it out into the garden and Oops, he might “escape”. If you’re uncomfortable with this, before setting the trap, contact local wildlife rescues to find one with a license to release grey squirrels and they should be able to help.
The problem with lethal control
Traditional methods of controlling mammalian pests such as poisoning or trapping are often ineffective, environmentally hazardous, socially unacceptable or uneconomic.
– Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Investigation of the use of semiochemicals for vertebrate pest population control, 2001.
Well there’s the obvious issues such as it’s cruel, unnecessary and unfair to take an animal’s life simply because it is causing you inconvenience. Aside from that it is difficult and dangerous. Squirrels can smell baited food so will often avoid it. And by leaving out poisoned food you risk targeting other animals and birds. Attempting to shoot them using an air rifle or similar is dangerous and difficult for obvious reasons and your chances of hitting one accurately enough to provide a humane death are minute. But above all it will not solve your problem!
If you kill the squirrel who is digging up your bulbs, stealing your bird food or living in your loft but still leave your beds unprotected, your bird food easily accessible and your eaves open, another squirrel will move in and do the same thing.
As outlined above, it is quite straightforward to deter squirrels from your borders, bird table or loft using smells and noises. As for the wider picture, grey squirrels are extremely well established in the UK and a cull can never succeed in eradicating them, it is simply impossible. While the habitat and food are available any culled animals will quickly be replaced by the remaining animals breeding. Any attempted cull can only lead to immense suffering.
We also recommend the following site for more info about squirrels – http://www.grey-squirrel.org.uk