Scotland faces a constant battle to control its grey squirrel population, so the option of trying this humanely managed free-range wild meat is worth considering.
In my year eating only animals I kill myself, I have tried to find sources of meat that do not damage the environment. In the case of grey squirrel, I can not only enjoy my meal safe in the knowledge it is free range, but that it has been killed to help other wildlife.
The invasive species are blamed for stripping the bark from native broadleaved trees like beech, oak and sweet chestnut. Worst of all, they are blamed for pushing out the native red squirrel population by spreading disease.
Grey squirrels carry a pox virus they are mostly immune to, but which kills their red cousins. Since the species was introduced to the UK in the late 19th century, it has pushed the red population south of the border into just a few pockets in northern England, Brownsea Island in Dorset and the Isle of Wight.
In Scotland, 120,000 red squirrels remain, around 75 per cent of the total UK population. But it is a constant battle to maintain the species and stop the two million greys dominating the habitat.
Don’t get me wrong, I rather like to see grey squirrels occasionally. They are beautiful creatures and many people enjoy feeding them.
However, in Dumfries and Galloway, the population must be controlled. This is the ‘frontline’ of the battle to save red squirrels in Scotland.
At the moment, grey squirrels in most of Scotland do not have the pox, but the disease is on the march, popping up on Queensberry Estate in 2008. If it is allowed to spread further north, it could reach the stronghold of red squirrels in the rest of Scotland.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust is controlling the population of grey squirrels in Dumfries and Galloway to help the surviving red population and to stop the disease spreading further north.
I join Richard Thomson, a gamekeeper on the Hoddom & Kinmount Estate near Lockerbie, to find out more about the grey squirrel control programme – and to get one of the ‘pests’ for my supper.
Richard is famous for not only being perhaps the most lethal controller of grey squirrels in Scotland, but for his secret weapon – the only dog in the country trained to tell the difference between a red and a grey squirrel. Rory, his black and white springer spaniel, will bark if a grey squirrel is in the trap and needs to be dispatched. But if it is a red squirrel, Rory will remain silent while the animal is released.
On a spring morning, Richard and I set out to check the squirrel traps in the delightfully named Woodcock Air Wood. Perched on the back of the quad bike is Rory, wagging his tail, ready to help.
As we drive through the beech and oak wood, Richard explains why it is so important to control certain species in order to maintain balance in the countryside. ‘We gamekeepers are not maniacs,’ he says. ‘We are custodians of the countryside.’
The traps, attached to trees, have been baited with whole maize and peanuts the day before. The squirrels should not be trapped for more than 24 hours, but there have been problems with the public interfering, so many of the traps have signs explaining the purpose of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s red squirrel programme.
As soon as we get to the first trap, Rory races to the bottom of the tree barking excitedly. Sure enough, it’s a grey squirrel.
Quickly, Richard moves in, gently moving the animal to the end of the trap using a piece of plastic. He then shoots it in the back of the head with a high-power, single-shot air pistol. It all happens in seconds. Richard has even trained people from other environmental groups in the humane dispatch of squirrels.
When it comes to my turn, I manage to be just as quick. Although it is unpleasant to see the death of a beautiful animal, I am confident Richard is doing it in the most humane way possible. ‘It is the most difficult part of my job,’ he says.
As we check the other traps, Richard points out the wild flowers in the wood: germander speedwell, and red and pink campion. At our last trap, Rory sits waiting patiently; sure enough it is a red. It is much smaller than the grey, except for its oversized, tufted ears.
Richard opens the door. Watching the reds escape is a wonderful moment as they spring out of the trap and sail an unfeasibly long distance, reaching for the next tree. It is the first time I have seen this rare species close up and it makes me smile.
I am not the only one. People who stay on the nearby Hoddom Castle caravan site have come to thank Richard personally for helping save the red squirrels they look forward to seeing every holiday.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust claims that reds in Dumfries and Galloway would be extinct by now if the grey population had been allowed to expand. Richard alone has stopped 600 greys ‘moving north’, and possibly spreading the pox, in the last five years.
We drive back to the estate deer larder, leaving the traps set for tomorrow. Usually Richard would only keep the squirrel tails and sell the rest for further pest control or the pet trade. But occasionally he will keep the meat for a barbecue and he shows me how to skin the rodent. It is a lot fiddlier than a rabbit, leaving me with a couple of meaty thighs and a saddle.
It is just about enough to make supper and I invite a couple of girlfriends over before a night out on the town. I am not sure how squirrel will go down, especially before drinking, so I mask the flavour a little with a tasty sauce. As always, Nigella comes to the rescue with a rich peanut butter satay that sweetens the strong ‘gamey’ tastes. They all enjoy it, even claiming it is far more delicious because it was ethical – although that could have been the drink.
The fact is that eating squirrel and other wild meats is quite fashionable in Scotland nowadays.
Paul Wedgwood, who runs the trendy Wedgwood restaurant on the Royal Mile, says diners are increasingly looking for ethical options. He shoots his own squirrels and uses the whole animal to serve dishes such as squirrel haggis.
He admits that some people might see squirrel as a tree rat, but cooked correctly, this little rodent makes a delicious dinner. ‘It has a lovely flavour,’ he says. ‘Almost nutty…’
(This feature was originally published in 2016)