We are more than half-way through over-wintering our autumn babies, who were too young to be released on the wrong side of winter, but the coldest days of the year have only just started. The squirrels staying here would be very grateful, if they thought in those terms, for the warm nest-boxes and plentiful food. But they will be equally grateful for the big wide world when the time comes to release them at the end of March. They get fresh twigs in their cages every day, and I wonder whether they can tell, by the condition of the buds, that spring will happen one day? As it is, they spend their day chasing each other around the cages, rearranging their nut supplies and chewing everything: toys, deer antler, mineral blocks, log perches, nest boxes – you name it, squirrel teeth can be used on it. As rodents, they have to keep chewing to trim their teeth. They also remember to take time to relax, and, when they do so, they groom each other in the most endearing way. (No, they do not come into sexual maturity for a few months yet.)
The campaigning activity on the part of those on two legs is very intense. As you may remember, at the end of December last year Natural England declared its intention to withdraw the licences from all rescue groups that deal with “alien” species. The decision is due to come into effect at the end of March and is based on new Invasive Alien Species legislation, a translation into British law of relevant EU regulations. We have been campaigning to make rescue exempt from this legislation, because we do not import or breed these animals, but take them from the wild in the interest of their welfare and return them where they came from.
The petition on this matter has gathered over 40,000 signatures, which is a very good result for a parliamentary petition. At 10,000 the government responded, with what was essentially a non-response. Fortunately, a lot of signatories complained to the Petitions Committee about this, and the response has been sent back to the government with a “do better” note.
The campaign has been supported by major organizations, most notably Wildlife Aid, home of TV Wildlife SOS and Animal Aid. The RSPCA (go figure!) and the British Veterinary Zoological Society have also made supportive statements. The issue has been featured in The Independent, as well as the Veterinary Times and several local papers.
As a result of several rescue groups writing to the MPs (and my son Jonny carrying a very heavy sack to the post office) three written parliamentary questions have been submitted. What we need now is for the MPs to raise an objection when the new legislation is presented in Parliament. It is known as a Statutory Instrument and will just go through without a vote unless there are objections. We are encouraging people to write to their MPs on this matter. Fingers crossed for those objections!
The over-wintering squirrels are thriving and doing whatever the squirrel equivalent is for counting days before release. When the time comes, we will transport them to the sites where they are going to live in the wild and set them up there in the release cages. They will stay in these cages for a couple of weeks, getting used to the outside temperature changes, the sights, smells and sounds of their new forever homes. They will also get to meet the wild birds and squirrels – and, yes, the predators (cats and foxes) from the safety of being behind the strong mesh of the cages. When the time comes for them to venture out, a small trap door will be opened at the top of the cages, and they will come and go as they please. The cage will stay on site for them to make use of for as long as they want to. Typically, they stop sleeping in it after a few days, but come back to the same spot for food for as long as it is on offer. We generally ask the owners of the garden or the land to continue to give supplementary feeding for the first year after release, and supply the nuts if needed.
The advocacy is more active than ever, since we are now fighting for the very survival of grey squirrel rescue. As you know, Natural England announced their decision to withdraw all our licences after the end of March this year. The campaign that followed the decision included a parliamentary petition bit.ly/SquirrelPetition , letters to Defra, Natural England and MPs, press releases and leafletting (more than 6,000 leaflets sent out to be placed in rescue centres, vet surgeries and vegan businesses), and a “tweetstorm” on February 28 that sent our hash-tag #CompassionIsNotACrime trending in the UK.
There has now been extensive press coverage of the draft legislation and the campaign. The Times, The Mirror, The Church Times, The Independent, as well as several local newspapers, carried articles about the issue. You can read the them here is you are interested. https://www.urbansquirrels.co.uk/invasive-alien-species-order-2019-press-coverage/
We have achieved two very important concessions. One is the promise of management measure licences to keep grey squirrels in future. The other is the extension of current licences to keep and release until October.
The law itself (Invasive Alien Species Order 2019, still in draft form) is to be presented before the Commons soon, and we are still campaigning very hard to make rescue exempt from it. It is good that we can now rear 2019 babies in peace, but October will come round eventually, and, unless the legislation is amended, we will not be able to release out squirrels any more, which will effectively mean an end to rescue. So, although there are positive developments to report, the fight is still very much on.
March is one of the busiest months for the rescue, because it can see an overlap between the release of the over-wintered youngsters and the arrival of new babies. This year this scenario played out in full. Fortunately, at the time of writing, we have all the squirrels getting ready for life in the wild on the release sites, in the release cages. The little door to the big wide world will not be opened for another week or so, but the highly stressful (because of the danger of escape) work of moving and settling them is done.
And, in the meantime, new babies are coming in. We have two sets of three little ones in residence. The names in one group are Tony, Defra and Juniper – I had to! There have been challenges, such as a stomach virus, but all-in-all life is good at the moment. All the little ones have opened their eyes now, so the night feed is dropped, it is just five times a day now, from 8 a.m. till midnight.
A lovely lady from Japan who is studying film-making at the Royal College of Arts has been following our progress, filming (the rather chaotic) process of setting up cages at a release site and (the far more relaxed) process of feeding and toileting the tiny ones.
We have, as you would expect, continued to campaign very actively against the new Invasive Alien Species legislation that would effectively outlaw grey squirrel rescue in the UK. Our following on the social media is continuing to grow, and there have been a couple of mainstream media interviews, though only one of them resulted in an actual publication https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/17541183.invasive-squirrels-face-tougher-new-rules-over-rescues/?fbclid=IwAR27ijfwZ2ZyMxfhgizKYMEzcXhfiby_m2KgWIkbC_fsW2-mX8J4QWHHoo4
Our letter in defence of grey squirrels was also published in the paper version of the Daily Mail.
Urban Squirrels supplied leaflets and a briefing to the wonderful Merseyside Animal Rights Campaigns, who managed to have two (!) meetings of murderous conservationists (the ones who kill grey squirrels in a misguided attempt to help red ones) cancelled. Their success was covered in the local press.
Good old charity stalls have not been forgotten either. On the 2nd of March we ran a stall at the Ealing Animal Charities Fair, where we raised some much-needed funds and had many interesting conversations, including one with the local MP.
The fight for grey squirrel rescue continues, though April, one of the two peaks of the breeding season, will be mostly about babies.
April is the height of the squirrel baby season, and this month has been phenomenally busy.
Fortunately, most of the cases have been straightforward: very thin and dehydrated babies, covered in fleas, who had clearly been without Mum for a while, but spring back to life and radiant health as soon as they are rehabilitated properly.
The procedure for helping them is as follows:
- Warming up first, in a plastic tank on a heat-mat,
- Rehydration, by electrolyte solution, either orally, or, if the squirrel is too weak to take fluids by mouth, subcutaneously,
- Treatment for parasites – Xeno 50,
- Gradual introduction of Esbilac or Fox Valley formula.
Usually this is enough to get the little one back to their own happy fluffy self, on the road to healthy adulthood.
Inevitably, there are exceptions to this rule as well. Henry, a sweet 5-week-old, had everything possible wrong with him. Face trauma, the usual fleas, urinary tract infection (peeing what looked like pure blood), then persistent diarrhoea. Fortunately, with medication, he overcame all the problems and is now a strong youngster on the verge of weaning.
There was one very sad case as well. A lady called me (Natalia) for some advice about a baby squirrel she had picked up. I told her to bring him to us, but she insisted on “having a go” rearing him herself. And the worst nightmare scenario unfolded. Without experience or proper equipment, she got some formula into the baby’s lungs. By the time she agreed to hand him over, he had advanced pneumonia and died in my hands shortly upon arrival. A story that would haunt me for a long time, but the public needs to be aware of the dangers of DIY rescue. When a placement is offered by a rescue centre, it should be immediately taken up. Rest in peace, little one.
As far as campaigning is concerned, quite a lot was done on the social media to promote bit.ly/SquirrelPetition to save UK grey squirrel rescue; the number of signatures now stands at nearly 57,000. I (Natalia) have provided detailed briefs for meeting with politicians, and a quote for this article in The Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/life/future-grey-area-much-maligned-squirrel/?fbclid=IwAR2oQVwpmYERP6d_93mFFi2ai5exzcovkWw5AkdX_AMAcQzSzWkeI35t2to
Unfortunately, the political route for changing the Invasive Alien Species Order 2019 (which would effectively phase out grey squirrel rescue by prohibiting the release of rehabilitated squirrels) has been exhausted, and it does not look like we are going to be able to change the law. But we can still work at the legal interpretation of the law. The Order does allow for the possibility of a permit to do activities that are otherwise prohibited by the law, as long as there is “compelling public interest”, “either economic or social” for these activities. We are now going to try to argue that permits should be issued for grey squirrel rescue because of compelling public interest. The success of the petition is vital for demonstrating this public interest, so it is very important that we keep promoting it. We are planning a letter writing campaign as well, please keep an eye on our social media pages for updates!
The very beginning and the very end of the squirrel breeding seasons are the most challenging times for rescuers emotionally. This is when the most difficult cases come in, and this is when we sometimes lose the fight. At the beginning of the season it is new-born babies, who are very very fragile; at the end of the season it tends to be the injuries.
On Sunday the 19th of May I (Natalia) got a phone call at 5:30 in the morning, from a lady frantically asking me to remove a baby squirrel from her loft. It took me a long time to piece together the full story, and it began several days before the frantic phone call to me. The lady in question heard squirrels in her loft. She called a pest control company, but hesitated to actually invite them in. She then contacted the RSPCA, who encouraged her to engage the pest control company, because “they know their job and can do what needs to be done humanely”. So the lady engaged the pest control company after all, who proceeded to set traps in her loft. There was a family of squirrels there. The mother was killed, as was one of the babies. A second baby was caught in the trap by his arm, and spent many hours thrashing about and screaming before the home-owners realized that there was nothing “humane” about what was going on, and called Urban Squirrels.
The lady and her adult son brought the poor baby squirrel to us still in the trap. I held the little one, while the son unclasped the jaws of the trap – it took him a considerable amount of effort to do it. The pain the poor little squirrel was in is impossible to imagine. I gave him a strong painkiller and he was comfortable till the surgery the next day, when his arm was amputated. The vet receptionist was in tears when I was explaining why I showed up without an appointment.
From that point onwards the little squirrel’s (we called him Cledward) luck turned. The surgery went well and he healed amazingly quickly. After only a few days he learned to climb using three limbs and eat by holding the food against the side of the cage with one hand. An amputee is never going to be releasable, they would be in too much danger from predators on the ground, but Cledward was offered a place in a large enclosure in a sanctuary in the country – the next best thing.
In the meantime, the loft that he came from still had squirrels in it… To cut a long story short, on our advice, the house-holders insisted that the council send someone in to repair all the holes in the roof that the squirrels were using to come in and out. This was done and the squirrels, who left the building as soon as the roofer came into “their” loft space, never came back – obviously, since there was no access point any more.
This is the only way to deal with squirrels in a loft space. There is no point removing them – either humanely, or by killing them. More will go in if there is an access point. The thing to do is to call in a reputable roofer to do up the holes. The squirrels will not stay around to watch him work, they will leave! If there happen to be very young babies in the loft, it is worth putting the nest out for the mother to carry the little ones away. If that does not happen, we are here to take them in and hand-rear.
So whatever happens, people should not call in pest control. It is about maintaining the building, not killing and maiming animals. The lady who brought Cledward to us would have saved two squirrel lives, a lot of physical pain for Cledward and a lot of emotional pain for herself and her son (they bitterly regretted the pest control decision) and, actually, a lot of money as well.