Human perceptions of wildlife are frequently directly proportional to the amount of grief it causes us. Grey squirrels tend to be portrayed as the villain, associated with the decline of the Red squirrel and some British bird species, as well as for damage to some woodlands. In addition, squirrels are often disliked by gardeners because they sometimes cache nuts in flower borders and lawns, gnaw wiring, dig-up bulbs and help themselves to food put out for the birds, sometimes destroying bird feeders in the process. Indeed, according to Cris Thomas’ Cyber Squirrel 1 project, squirrels ‘attacking’ power cables have been responsible for 879 power outages since 2013, although in his interview with BBC News online in January 2017 there is no reference to whether this is a global or USA-specific figure. Nonetheless, issues such as these have resulted in a great deal of time, effort and money being spent trying to manage the squirrel population and deter them from areas in which they are not welcome.
The Grey squirrel is regarded as an invasive non-native species following its inclusion under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Country Act 1981 (WCA). Schedule 9 makes it illegal to release a Grey into the wild, or allow one to escape, without a license. This means if you trap one, you are obliged to humanely dispatch it. Recently, there have been stories in the media suggesting if you trap a Grey squirrel you’re stuck because it’s illegal to release it and to kill it. This confusion arises because all wild mammals are listed on Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996, which some have incorrectly interpreted as meaning they cannot be killed. In fact, all this Act does is legislate the manner in which they can be killed – i.e. it is an offense to cause them “unnecessary suffering”. So, caught Greys can be killed, but they must be killed humanely.
Grey squirrels are culled by gamekeepers and landowners in many parts of the UK, although I have seen no estimates for the number killed in this way. Historically, fur from squirrel pelts has gone into producing hats, gloves and even coats but, largely in response to a coordinated anti-fur movement during the 1980s and 90s, the use of real fur in clothing is widely considered socially unacceptable and has declined throughout much of Europe. This is not the case in the United States, where trapping of many mammals for fur is still permitted and there is still demand for fur-based products, including fishing lures made using squirrel fur.
Squirrel meat was eaten in Britain during the First World War, although it’s popularity declined in post-war years. Squirrel meat does, however, still feature on the menu of some London restaurants. According to an article in The Independent newspaper in March 2002, the hind legs are braised, the loin is roasted and the heart, liver, kidneys and front paws are made into a pie filling. George Monbiot also caused a stir in the media when he butchered and cooked a squirrel on the BBC’s Newsnight programme in August 2015 as part of an article encouraging the British public to try the meat of ‘pest species’.
Despite having historically been hunted as a pest to the timber industry, with “squirrel destruction clubs” in Scotland estimated to have killed 82 thousand between 1903 and 1933, the Red squirrel is now protected by law in the UK. It is included in Schedule 5 and 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), as well as the Wildlife and Countryside (Northern Ireland) Order of 1985 and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act of 2004. For a comprehensive review of how each of these pieces of legislation affect squirrel conservation, the reader is directed to the UK Red Squirrel Group’s August 2004 Advice Note. In essence, however, it is illegal to intentionally kill, injure or capture a Red squirrel, damage a Red squirrel’s drey or possess or sell a wild Red squirrel or part thereof without a license. Section 18 of the WCA also makes it clear that trying to commit any of the above offences is legally the same as actually committing it.
The legal status of the Red also means that planners are obliged to consider the species when working on new developments. Licenses can be obtained to trap or kill Red squirrels for the purposes of prevention of serious damage to forestry, to prevent the spread of disease, for inclusion in zoological collections or for the purposes of conservation. It should be noted, however, that neither the WCA nor the WCO(NI) permit licensing to kill or injure Reds or their dreys for building development or forestry.
See also the associated QA: I’ve rescued a Grey squirrel. Can I release it back into the wild?