DT Max had an entertaining piece in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday, exploring the Great British Squirrel Wars. Short story: its the worst sort of Squirrel Imperialism. American greys are driving out the smaller, but cuter, British red. Sadly the pair cannot coexist and it is always the red that succumbs - often killed by the mysterious Squirrelpox carried by the greys to which the American interlopers are irritatingly immune. The greys, already rampant across most of England are now targetting the Lake District and Southern Scotland. Something must be done!
Happily the World's Greatest Deliberative Body is on the case. I speak, of course, of the House of Lords. Even in these pale days, now that the right of most of the hereditary peers to attend has been removed, it remains a national treasure. The noble Lords pondered the fate of the red squirrel last year. Mr Max quotes from the debate in his article but, really he could have saved himself plenty of work and just published excerpts form the debate accompanied by a brief, prefatory note. I make no apology for the length of this post. It's all gold:
Earl Peel: To many, the red squirrel represents an integral part of our woodland landscape—an iconic creature, immortalised by Beatrix Potter, through the charismatic character of Squirrel Nutkin. But before concentrating on Squirrel Nutkin—or sciurus vulgaris, to give him his rather unflattering title—I thought I might conduct a brief health check of some of the main characters in Beatrix Potter's class of 1912. Starting with Tabitha Twitchit and Tom Kitten, they are truly on top of their game—despite the fact that against a declining wild bird population they are responsible for the killing of some 160 million birds per annum. It is perhaps surprising, given this carnage, that some of the conservation charities do not cry "foul"—but that might have something to do with the small matter of membership.
Let us now consider the status of Mr Todd, the fox. On second thoughts, given that he has taken up 700 hours of parliamentary time, it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to prolong the debate; but something tells me that we have not reached the end of Mr Todd. Is he doing well since the legislation? Not particularly, I think. That brings me on seamlessly to the other really controversial character that graced the class of 1912—and that of course is Tommy Brock. Hasn't he done well? Despite suffering from and carrying tuberculosis, he has successfully managed to establish himself in the hearts and minds of the nation as being more important than dairy cows or, indeed, farmers' livelihoods, and, like Mr Todd, has managed to secure his very own legislation.
Squirrel Nutkin must look back on his alma mater and think to himself, "How could it have all gone so wretchedly wrong for me?". Why couldn't he, like Tommy Brock, have employed a top public relations firm and secured himself as a logo for a major conservation body? How very different life might have been. But what really hurts—and hurts to the core—is that given that it is largely the fault of the American grey squirrel that he is in such a parlous state today, why is it that when someone's dog kills a grey squirrel he can be fined up to £5,000?
Where has it all gone so wrong for the red squirrel? ...
Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Peel, for initiating the debate and commend him for his bravery. It takes a brave man to initiate a debate that had Radio 4 saying this morning that he would be calling for an immediate cull of grey squirrels. I hate to say that his postbag will immediately be filled with letters from irate people who love grey squirrels. Indeed, many of us in this House who prefer to love red squirrels also enjoy the sight of grey squirrels in our gardens and parks, although in a recent discussion they were described as rats with good PR.
One of the problems in the public perception is that grey squirrels are the only squirrels they see. They see them in parks and gardens, and they are sociable and friendly animals. Yesterday, I walked through St James's Park and watched tourists feeding grey squirrels crisps by hand. In Regent's Park, a grey squirrel came up to my son and me and actually climbed up my leg to look in my pocket. This is not an unusual experience with grey squirrels, because they can become quite aggressive. That is a fact, although I believe there has been a cull in Regent's Park recently, so there are not so many greys around at the moment...
Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, I am rather surprised that the Labour Party opposite, which professes to be the party of animal rights, does not seem to have any speakers down at all in support of squirrels today. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Peel and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, on putting the case so strongly for the red squirrel. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, seems to want to have it both ways: he wants his grey squirrels and his red squirrels, but that is not possible. If we look 10 years ahead, there will be no red squirrels if we do not we take more urgent action. The indigenous red squirrel will have gone and we will have to put up with the imported grey squirrel from the United States. Every now and again I go there. In urban areas grey squirrels are an absolute pest. They are in and out of dustbins and motorcars; they stand on the roof and do all sorts of things on the windscreen, and they cause accidents by dashing across the road. A large number of grey squirrels, which would be inevitable, would cause a great deal of hardship in this country.
Unfortunately, Hadrian's Wall has not kept the grey squirrel out of Scotland...
Lord Chorley:.. I question whether we are holding our own in the Lake District. In South Lakeland we have certainly lost the battle. Three or four noble Lords who have spoken this morning, starting with the noble Earl, have referred to Beatrix Potter and Squirrel Nutkin. He was a red squirrel, and that was at Derwentwater. Beatrix Potter was an intrepid fighter and she was a splendid person. I must be the only noble Lord who knew her. I was taken to have tea with her in about 1941, just before she died. Sadly, I have no real recollection of her, except that she seemed to me to be a bit like Mrs Tiggywinkle. Unfortunately, I was at an age when Biggles was much more interesting to me than Peter Rabbit or Squirrel Nutkin. The point about Beatrix Potter is that she was a very tough businesswoman and she was a doughty fighter who did not suffer fools gladly—that is to say, people she disagreed with. She would have been hugely effective in fighting for us for red squirr els.
Lord Inglewood: ...If we mean to save red squirrels, it is no good extrapolating past policies, wringing our hands and expressing platitudes any more than it was in Sir Stephen's day. We have to be imaginative, radical and think out of the box. For a start, why do we not take a leaf out of Sir Stephen's book and follow the example of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and promote the animal as food? After all, it can be done in the interests of forestry, conservation and as part of a programme of diversifying the rural economy. As has been explained, greys do millions of pounds worth of damage to trees. They are driving the reds helter-skelter to oblivion and destruction, and the Government are encouraging shooting to diversify the economic base of the rural economy. That approach gives the Government the chance of achieving several disparate policy aims at one and the same time.
Squirrels are said to be good to eat. Sir Stephen wrote that, in Connecticut, the great chef Brillat-Savarin created a banquet,
"of grey squirrels stewed in Madeira, together with partridge wings en papillote and roast turkey".
The LL Bean Game and Fish Cookbook says:
"I believe, squirrel meat is the most delicious of all small game meats. Chicken-fried young squirrel is better than rabbit or chicken, two of my favorite meats; in addition, the squirrel lends itself to most savory stews and braises".
There are then 10 pages of specific recipes.
I am sure that the obesity tsar would be only too overexcited to support this good healthy initiative. What about celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver promoting it for school dinners? Indeed, the House authorities could put it on the menu here. My father was a Member of the other place shortly after the war. When he and some of his friends were dining in the Members' Dining Room, they found black partridge on the menu. They knew a little about birds and none of them could find in their memory any recollection of black partridge. Nor could they find it in the bird books that they consulted. After some investigation, it turned out to be young rook. So there is certainly precedent here for that kind of thing.
Despite standing here promoting it, I must confess that I have never actually eaten a grey squirrel—I do not know whether any other noble Lord has. Perhaps it will suggest that I suffer from one of the worst characteristics of those in public life today. However, I am prepared to give it a go. I invite each and every Member of the government Front-Bench Defra [Department of Environment and Rural Affairs] team to the hotel in the Lake District where I am a director—and which has, I hasten to add, one AA rosette for fine food—to dine on grey squirrels to launch an "Eat a Grey to Save a Red" campaign.
I will feel very let down and be very sceptical of the Government's true intentions on biodiversity if, on the advice of some politically correct adviser, the invitation is refused. After all, let us not forget that many of the things we eat as a matter of course are entirely lovable and pretty creatures which appeal to the wider world. What is the difference? Perhaps more importantly, I am not the only one who will feel let down—the red squirrels will too. As I have already said, unless something radical and imaginative is done—and an extrapolation of what we are doing now does not amount to that—Squirrel Nutkin and his friends and relations are "going to be toast"...
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, this is an important debate, but I fear that the press reporting of it may be advantageous to headlines. I am sure that, were William Shakespeare in the Press Gallery, he would report someone here as having said "a pox on grey squirrels". It is that sort of subject. Grey squirrels have very good PR.