Posted on Category:Animal

The Secret Lives of Grey Squirrels

This poor lady didn’t close her roof hatch properly and the squirrel got into the apartment,” recalls John Silby, a 58-year-old pest control specialist. “She thought she had been robbed. The TV was off the wall, the plates were broken, the furniture was torn. We set traps. When we came back and opened the door, we could smell the dead rodents. But the traps were not gone.”

Silby’s grey squirrel stories have the urgency, secret and blood of a Sherlock Holmes story. Once one of his colleagues was bitten by a squirrel, the massive incisors of which passed through his fingernail and to the other side. Silby couldn’t get rid of the animal because it was tied up and fidgeting, so he had to decapitate it, then wrap the thumb – and the squirrel’s head – in a bandage to take his colleague to A&E.

But I digress. They found the poor Lady’s squirrel in the bathroom. “He had chewed on a bottle of Listerine and died of alcohol virusing. He was lying in the sink, legs in the air, a big smile on his face.”

The Woodland Trust estimates that there are 2.7 million grey squirrels in the UK-and the number is steadily increasing. This is partly a consequence of urbanization: parks, largely free of predators and surrounded by human dwellings with a lot of garbage lying around, increase population density. As a result, squirrels become less suspicious of humans and more likely to move to people’s lofts. They reproduce easily and do not hibernate, so there is very little to stop them.

But it is not a sudden increase in the population that is tearing pest control apart and leading to an increase in insurance claims (one company reported a 51% annual increase in squirrel-related claims). Rather, it is a combination of factors that you could vaguely call “the deterioration of the public”. The increase in the severity of storms caused by climate change has damaged roofs, while the reduction in local authority funding has put rodent control at the bottom of the agenda. “And many housing associations have deliberately neglected their duty to repair people’s homes,” says Silby.

Once a squirrel is in your attic, it can be difficult to get it out. They don’t move in with 19 friends, like mice. You could have a family nest, or you could have just one. But even a single squirrel can do extraordinary damage. Squirrels can chew on just about anything and, like rabbits, must constantly occupy their teeth. You can get through a rafter in a day; chew in a water tank and deliver half a ton of water to your living room; or nibble on a cable, get electrified, perish attached to the cable and ignite like a miniature pig roast in your dry insulation. All these examples are real.

Anyone who has closely observed squirrels from any angle – whether as a protector or an enemy – is United in awe. “They’re extremely muscular, they’re jumpers, they can do anything,” Silby says. “I love squirrels. I love to catch them and I love to shoot them. Natalia Doran, 58, founder of Urban Squirrels, a sanctuary (which is also her home) in London with a license for 18 squirrels, describes her formidable intelligence: “they learn very quickly, they are extremely determined, they can solve non-catchy puzzles. It’s like chimpanzees live in your backyard.”

Paul Winters, a tree surgeon, forester and forest administrator who lives near Wells in Somerset, is absolutely appalled by the effects of ring barking, where squirrels gnaw the bark to reach the sap. If you go around, it will finish the tree. “What’s really going on with the squirrels is pretty devastating,” he says. “No matter how often we experience it, it’s always horrible; standing for a minute of silence for this tree that we have worked so hard on. They don’t understand that they are finishing the tree – they just use it until they have finished it and continue. In this regard, they are a bit like us.Yet he can’t help but admire your determined tenacity and resilience: “You are awesome. They are delicious too.”

In 2019, squirrels were designated as a non-native invasive species. “That’s why it’s actually unlawful to release a trapped squirrel,” says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the chef and broadcaster who first cooked squirrels on television 30 years ago, for his first show a chef on the wild side. It was arguable: “one headline said something like, ‘anger as TV chef finishs Tufty for eating,'” he recalls.

This gets to the heart of the matter – there’s not much appetite for finishing squirrels, let alone eating them, because “it’s hard not to think they’re incredibly cute,” as Fearnley-Whittingstall puts it. “One of the things that makes them super cute is that they have hands. Rabbits are not so “practical”, but if you see a squirrel picking up a nut and nibbling on it, it’s straight out of the Ice Age.”

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