Anne Wareham

What to do with a squirrel (without getting prosecuted)

Well, you could set it an obstacle course. Or serve it up with shallots

What to do with a squirrel (without getting prosecuted)
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Gardeners are up against it. There are thousands of garden pests, exciting new ones discovered every day, and few remedies left with which to fight them. The wonderful cure-all chemicals we once depended on have long been banned — they ‘cured’ a little more than was intended.

And how do you repel that king of garden pests, the alien grey squirrel? Squirrels destroy baby birds, bulbs, fruit, young trees just as they begin to look like real trees, and bird feeders too. Not (yet) the human variety of bird feeders, but the peanut and seed containing varieties. At this time of year they are frantic for food and liable to chew up your beloved buds; the females become aggressive in spring and can attack. If you ever attempt a close encounter with a grey squirrel you will discover that they have a vicious bite.

The solution looks simple at first. You find a squirrel chewing the feeder and the nuts which you extravagantly left there for the birds, so you buy a ‘squirrel-proof’ feeder. I have an attractive one, a kind of cage with the column of peanuts safely enclosed. I also have a photograph of a feeder with a squirrel cosily curled up inside it, having a scoff.

Some people swear by a half-spherical plastic baffle placed above or below the nuts. If placed above, the baffle gets repeatedly dive-bombed until it disintegrates. Place it below, and the squirrels shin up the post and chew away the plastic nut which secures the baffle to the post. It has to be admitted that hours of fun may be had watching squirrel ingenuity, especially, perhaps, watching them attempting to climb a well-greased pole (try auto grease or Vaseline) — before they find a handy tree to leap off in order to approach from above.

Some people build a series of obstacles on a tightrope leading to peanut heaven in order to save the squirrels a trip to the gym. A better idea might be to buy one of those wireless doorbells, cover the receiver part in plastic wrap and bury it in your peanuts. A satisfying effect can be produced by pressing the ringer mid-feed. You can try a variety of ringtones. If you have a gun, a bird feeder does persuade a squirrel into offering itself as a perfect target.

You may trap a squirrel — but beware imposing ‘unnecessary suffering’. Gunless, you are stuck with the problem of disposal. Don’t try drowning it or attacking it with a spade. People have been prosecuted for that. I’m afraid escorting your prisoner to a distant place and releasing it into the ‘wild’ is illegal, because they are vermin. And anyway they will find their way home. I know of someone who painted a squirrel blue before releasing it many miles away. It wandered back for another coat.

Because this is vermin you ought to be able to persuade your friendly neighbourhood vet to expensively destroy your new pet. On the other hand they may refuse to have anything to do with that, having spent the previous day mending a poor squirrel that some kind person rescued after a traffic accident. You could try a butcher, though: squirrels make good eating. St John restaurant in Smithfield serves them with shallots. The Wild Boar Hotel, near Windermere, has served up squirrel in Asian-style pancakes.

Squirrels demonstrate one of the particular problems of attempting to defeat pests in a garden. All results appear to be variable. One person’s amazing solution does absolutely nothing for the next person. All squirrels are not equal: some are easily foiled with plastic baffles, others have uncanny abilities.

It’s more of a mystery why some slugs with apparently little brain or expertise in experiments will happily find a way to scale any obstacle, even a razor blade or shards of glass, while others are deterred by a little grit. Evolution, I suppose. The progress of slugkind depends on defeating human ingenuity. Some moles run a mile from the noise of a child’s windmill stuck in the ground, so we are told. Others would not be deterred by a landmine but would plough on relentlessly through your lawn.

The lesson, then, is to know your own pests, watch and learn from their behaviour, see what dents their confidence. And beware, at all costs, the garden expert. Your desperation will make you vulnerable and eager for ‘infallible’ solutions, but the garden ‘expert’ has acquired this status by no better means than having attended a horticultural course some time in the previous century, or perhaps having written amiable nonsense about deterring deer with lion dung for The Spectator. In short: look to the squirrel and learn. You need his persistence, determination, and ingenuity to stand a chance of protecting your garden.

Anne Wareham’s Outwitting Squirrels: And Other Garden Pests is published next month.