The work of Urban Squirrels is two-fold: rescue and advocacy. As far as rescue is concerned, January is a quiet month. Some squirrels, too young to be safely released in autumn, are staying with us till late April or early May. Some of them are inside, some in the outside aviary. They are all doing very well. They thoroughly enjoyed recycling the neighbours’ Christmas trees and are patiently waiting to go back to the wild, where they belong. They are fed and have their aviaries cleaned every day by Jonny, my adult son with autism. He cannot handle our furry clients, so the syringe-feeding of the very young babies is my job, but, once the babies are weaned, Jonny comes into his own.
On the advocacy front, quite a lot has happened. The petition on Care2, https://www.thepetitionsite.com/775/026/354/stop-culling-healthy-animals-in-londons-royal-parks/ , asking London Royal Parks to stop the culling of healthy animals, is doing well. It is growing organically at the rate of about 500 signatures a day and has now reached 111,000. The campaign is supported by Care2 itself, by Animal Aid, London Wildlife Protection, Stop the Deer Cull initiative, Farplace Animal Rescue and Humane Wildlife Solutions. I wrote to the Royal Parks authorities informing them of the petition. Their response was encouraging inasmuch as they stated that they are keeping abreast of developments and that they are in principle open to policy change, but not encouraging inasmuch as they did not indicate any particular policy change that they might be prepared to adopt. I made a few suggestions and asked for a face-to-face meeting. It remains to be seen whether they want to negotiate.
The specifically squirrel campaign received some unexpected publicity opportunities when the environment secretary Michael Gove made an announcement in support of culling grey squirrels “to help trees”. The statement, which goes against not only basic principles of compassion, but also Forestry Commission research, was vigorously opposed by several animal protection organizations, including, of course, our own. We sent an open letter to Michael Gove that was covered in the Times https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/grey-squirrel-cull-is-nuts-gove-told-twslsw6ww and became one of the items discussed in the BBC2 Daily Politics programme, in which Dr Craig Shuttleworth and I had three minutes between us to put our position across to the viewers http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-42879391/grey-squirrels-craig-shuttleworth-and-natalia-doran . (If you do not know who he is, you sleep better at night.)
In lieu of the February update, here is an article published about us by the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals in their Animal Watch magazine.
Urban Squirrels is a non-profit organisation that specialises in grey squirrels – rescue, advice and advocacy.
THE ONES ON FOUR LEGS
Grey squirrels are charming and intelligent animals that have adapted to live in a variety of habitats. They entertain people by their play, help them to reconnect to nature, encourage them to take exercise and enhance mental health. In the urban environment, they are often the only diurnal wild mammals that people see on a regular basis.
Squirrels are also known as some of nature’s greatest conservationist: they plant new trees by caching seeds, provide food for birds by encouraging fungus growth and insects through their own feeding behaviours, create new wildlife habitats by “felling” old trees.
THE ONES ON TWO LEGS
Urban Squirrels was founded three years ago by me, Natalia Doran, and my son Jonny, who is a young adult with autism. Jonny has always wanted to work with animals and, with the help of one-to-one behavioural therapy, studied for and received his Diploma in Animal Care. Finding actual work however, even in a voluntary capacity, proved impossible. Jonny is clever, dedicated and strong, but also profoundly handicapped, with very little understanding of danger or capacity to deal with a changing environment. So the only way forward was to create a working environment for him in our home that was tailored to his needs, making it impossible for him to fail.
Thus Urban Squirrels was born. Now the “division of labour” is such that Jonny does all the feeding, cleaning and heavy physical tasks, while I deal with the advocacy side of the work and do the hand-rearing – every four hours round the clock, in case you think I have the easy part.
We are licensed by Defra and take referrals from vets, tree surgeons and directly from members of the public. The bushy-tailed clients are given medical treatment when necessary, hand-reared if they are too young to cope on their own, over-wintered in the case of late autumn babies, and then returned back to the wild using the soft release method.
The advocacy involves running stalls and giving presentations at vegan festivals and animal welfare events, responding to articles about squirrels in the media and giving interviews when approached by media researchers for additional information.
Some of the myths that we regularly encounter are that grey squirrels replace the “native red”, destroy trees and reduce the bird population. The myth-busting is carried out along the following lines:
- The problems that red squirrels face in this country are explained by habitat loss – deforestation as a result of human activity, and not by the presence of their grey cousins. Red squirrels became very rare, to the point of extinction, by the end of the 18th century, before the greys were introduced, and had to be repeated reintroduced from Scandinavia. Killing grey squirrels is not an effective way to conserve the reds.
- While it is true that squirrels, both reds and greys, feed on trees (leaves, twigs, buds), this does not destroy the trees, but only changes their physical appearance. Squirrels are in fact essential for forest regeneration.
- As far as the birds are concerned, an extensive government-funded study has concluded that grey squirrel activities do not reduce the bird population as a whole.
WHERE YOU COME IN
If you are interested in finding out more about the work that we do (as well as check out the references to scientific papers backing our advocacy claims), visit our websites www.urbansquirrels.co.uk , the Urban Squirrels Facebook page and the Stop the Grey Squirrel Cull Facebook page.
Last but by no means least, if your conscience leads you this way, please consider signing our petition that deals with the culling of many species, squirrels among them, in London’s Royal Parks. https://www.thepetitionsite.com/en-gb/775/026/354/stop-culling-healthy-animals-in-londons-royal-parks/?taf_id=46915308
The baby season came upon us early and suddenly. The first couple, Bridget and Betty, came from a loft. The people who hired the workman to repair the loft put the nest on a shed roof, hoping that the mother would come back for the babies. Actually, she did come back and took one. Grey squirrels are very resourceful creatures, who would normally have a second or third home ready in case the first one is damaged. However, the mother clearly decided to cut her losses and take only one baby. So Betty and Bridget were brought here, and are now well settled. They were very small and helpless, just 2 weeks old, but are both doing well at the time of writing.
The second group were another typical story: tree surgery victims. The trees in question belonged to a very nice couple, who were forced by their neighbours to cut down the trees, in spite of it being the breeding season for squirrels and birds. The tree surgeon put the nest out for the mother squirrel to come back to, but she did not – the noise of the work must have been too much for her. The day was cold and wet, and it was not practical to leave the babies out for too long. So to Urban Squirrels they went. This group is older than Bridget and Betty. At the time of arrival they were about 4 weeks old, their eyes just opening. As always in a large sibling group, one baby was particularly weak and probably would not have survived in the wild. With a bit of extra love (and, inevitably, worry) he is now doing well too.
The over-wintered juveniles are going to the release sites. They will stay there in the release cages for a couple of weeks, to get used to the big wide world, after which the doors will be opened for them to come and go. They can come back to the cages for as long as they feel they need them. Most of them move out within a week of the doors being opened, but come back to the garden from which they were released if there is food on offer, which there usually is.
March was a busy month on the advocacy front also. Ealing Animal Charities fair, Viva! Festival in London, Vegfest Brighton (the biggest, and hence the best financially, of them all).
I do my best to write letters to the editor whenever squirrels appear in the news. Westmorland Gazette published my letter, which is very useful, because the catchment area is where culls are heavy and where even more culls are planned. There has also been a spate of interviews, from student films and magazines to PhD and Radio Five Live.
The spring baby season (squirrels breed twice a year, with another lot of babies appearing in late summer and early autumn) started with two straightforward groups, one from a loft and one from a tree surgeon – straightforward cases, since the little ones went from the mother’s care directly to us – but continued with what turned out to be a catalogue of extreme rescue cases.
Here are the clients:
- a cat attack baby, cats’ mouths are full of bacteria, and unless antibiotics are given quickly, the outcome is not good;
- crow attack babies, in this case necessitating the amputation of part of the tail;
- a little one with a very heavy load of coccidia, with persistent vomiting, something that many vets believe squirrels to be incapable of in principle;
- a young squirrel reported to have been hit by a car, who came in with head trauma and struggling for breath and with diarrhoea that was pure blood; when I first saw the little one, covered in blood and mud, I did not believe that the state she was in was compatible with life, however, she is doing well at the time of writing, as are all of the above.
Needless to say, with all this going on, there was not a great deal of time for advocacy work.
However, Freedom of Information replies came in, from Defra and from the Royal Parks. Defra, whom I asked about the money given to land-owners to kill squirrels and about research into oral contraceptives for squirrels (Gonacon, reported by the press as being researched by Defra laboratories in York), wriggled out of answering. I suppose Gonacon research is, technically, an animal experiment, and animal experiments are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The Royal Parks did supply the information requested (the number of birds and mammals killed in each park in 2017). The numbers are depressing. I am working on a possible press release in this connection.
Just before the difficult babies started coming in, we were invaded by a camera crew from a European TV company doing a feature on grey squirrels. Very welcome invasion, of course, since the persecution of grey squirrels rests on misinformation and exaggeration, so any publicity is always welcome, and a few seconds of film of a baby squirrel drinking her formula from a syringe should go a long way to making people more aware of the debate, at least. 7 hours of filming should result in about 7 minutes of TV time, I will let all the squirrel friends know when it can be viewed. The feature will present both sides of the debate, of course, and there is no way of knowing how the final editing will pan out, but at least we have stated and showed our case.
Going by the rule that a picture is worth a thousand words, I have decided to make this months’s update a link to the feature on grey squirrels that was broadcast on the Arte culture channel in Europe. The programme included about 6 minutes on our rescue, at 10:30 – 13:50 and 21:30 – 24:36 https://www.arte.tv/en/videos/079474-016-A/re-britain-s-squirrel-wars/ Please note that the rest of programme covers the full spectrum of opinion and some footage from “the other side” will be very upsetting, and there is a lot of it.