Not many animals can live in the ecological mess that is our cities. And yet some intrepid survivors, the all-time champions in the evolutionary game of the survival of the fittest, do manage to share the habitat with us humans. Among them is the humble urban grey squirrel, the only diurnal wild mammal whom city dwellers see on a regular basis.
Many people adore grey squirrels for their agility, intelligence, tenacious problem-solving and, let’s face it, sheer off-the-scale cuteness. Such humans take great pleasure in watching the furry acrobats, and even feeding them. Some people form real friendship with grey squirrels visiting their garden, a friendship that seems to combine the best features of a relationship between a human and a non-human animal. The squirrel remains free-living, but gets the benefit of food, and sometimes even a nest box and veterinary care if needed. The human gets the benefit of animal companionship, but without the complete logistical and emotional responsibility that sharing life with a companion animal involves. Win-win?
However, some people who love nature and enjoy tending their garden do complain that grey squirrels dig up bulbs, bury nuts in their immaculate lawn, eat fruit and nuts grown for human consumption, and steal from the birdfeeder. There are plenty of practical solutions to these problems, some good ones, some downright awful (and they will be considered in some detail below). But first let us step back and take a broader view of the conflict. A change of ethos might be in order, a change that will enable us to enjoy our gardens at no extra cost and with no extra effort.
A sense of proportion may not be out of place. There are some parts of the world where a herd of elephants can ruin your whole banana plantation and deprive you of your livelihood. A few bulbs and bird seeds should, hopefully, slot into their legitimate place on the scale of what is important in our lives.
Thinking outside the ethical box might help further. What we consider “our” garden is, after all, also a wildlife habitat, which belongs to animals as much as it does to us. And, just as we want to practice our natural behaviours in our garden, such as resting, eating, socializing, so do squirrels, for whom natural behaviours would be looking for food, digging, nest building and gnawing. Similarly, what we view as, for example, a bird-feeder or a walnut/apple/cherry tree bearing fruit for human consumption, is, for a squirrel, simply a food resource in the habitat. A compromise, and therefore peaceful coexistence, can be reached if we, on the one hand, relax our gardening standards a little and, on the other hand, take some simple measures to limit such squirrel activities that we find undesirable.
Surprisingly balanced (considering that the authors might be expected to completely take the human gardeners’ side) and sensible advice is offered by the Royal Horticultural Society on its website https://www.rhs.org.uk They state that “it is not possible to stop squirrels from entering a garden and it is usually necessary to accept and tolerate their presence or even appreciate their acrobatic antics.” They also offer advice on the practice of rewilding the garden, something that is becoming more and more popular, and deservedly so. The Royal Horticultural Society encourages its member to take the pledge to “bring their lawn to life” by mowing less and by “embracing the daisies, dandelions, clovers and other naturally flowering plants”. Needless to say, a squirrel burying a few nuts in a grass space like this will present no problem whatsoever.
In the rare cases where active deterrence is needed, there are often perfectly straightforward solutions. Bulbs, for instance, can be covered by mesh when first planted. The mesh can be taken off when they start growing and become far less attractive to squirrels anyway. Peppermint oil and cayenne pepper can also be used to deter the bushy-tailed guerilla gardeners.
The question of feeding birds can be concerned in two different ways. There are, of course, feeders advertised as “squirrel-proof”. They can, however, be dangerous both to squirrels and to birds. A feeder on a pole with a dome preventing a squirrel from climbing might be a solution, though the structure will have to be placed two meters or more away from any fence or tree that can be jumped from – not practical in many gardens. Changing the approach entirely and thinking in terms of rewilding and change of ethos, we might ask ourselves whether bird feeders are the best way to support birds anyway. They can spread diseases, they encourage many rodents who are not bushy-tailed, they can create an unhealthy dependence in the bird population on humans as a food-source (what happens when you go away or move house?). In the spirit of rewilding, it would make more sense to encourage plants that provide natural food for seed-eating birds and insects for insect-eating birds. The number of people who like insect-eating birds might be quite a bit higher than the number of people who like insects, but the point is still valid.
In a garden where nature is allowed more of a free hand, grey squirrels will start fitting into the ecosystem in a way that would surprise and delight gardeners. Squirrels plant new trees by burying seeds and nuts. Their feeding behaviour provides food for birds: as a squirrel opens and eats a nut, crumbs fall to the ground that birds happily pick up. Even the dreaded bark-stripping does not kill the tree in the vast majority of cases, but encourages fungus growth and insects, food for birds. In the tiny number of cases where the tree dies it can become a very valuable wildlife habitat in its own right, either on the floor or cut back and left standing, as per a reputable tree-surgeon’s advice in each individual case.
Something that should not be attempted is “control” of grey squirrels in the form of killing them. It is self-evidently cruel and does not even solve the problem, as the RSPCA points out in its advice on grey squirrels: “Killing squirrels is also unlikely to be a long-term solution, as their biology is such that other squirrels may very quickly replace any that are removed from a garden – perhaps within as little as a month.” This statement applies equally to relocation (trapping squirrels in your garden and releasing them elsewhere), which is, furthermore, illegal in the UK. Relocation does not, in any case, give the squirrel much of a chance to survive. Suddenly finding herself in completely new territory, she will not have either a nest to sleep in or stores of food to eat. She will feel stressed and disoriented and may either be caught by a predator or killed by a car as she tries to find a way back home.
If tempted to take extreme measures, we would do well to remember why we wanted a garden in the first place. It must have been so that we could get close to nature and enjoy it. But nature is what is really out there, not what we think should be out there. It does not exist for our convenience, and the best way to enjoy it is to live in harmony with it: worry less, spend less, observe more, think more, relax more. And appreciate the company of our bushy-tailed neighbours, who can teach us a lesson or two about survival, and about making survival look and feel like fun.