October 7, 2007
The Squirrel Wars
By D.T. MAX
When you think of England, Rupert Redesdale is who you think of. He has a slanting forehead, a nose shaped like an adze and the pink face of an aristocrat from the Georgian era. But in fact his family is far older: it is one of five in Britain that can trace its roots directly back to William the Conqueror, the last successful invader of England, in 1066. “Our original name was Bertram,” he told me recently. “We were Normans.” Redesdale, a 40-year-old baron, can stand on a Northumberland hilltop and see the Rede Valley, with the Rede River running through it. He is able to say things like, “Our family had a castle in Mitford, but Robert the Bruce, the sod, knocked it down.”
I first met Lord Redesdale one day in August in the Lake District, about 80 miles southwest of his home in the Rede Valley. The Lake District, in the north of England, is on the front lines of a new Hundred Years’ War. It is a war between rodents. Since the 19th century, gray squirrels, an American import, have been overtaking Britain’s native red squirrels and claiming their territory. The grays have moved up from the south of England, thinning out the reds along the way. The reds now survive mostly in Scotland and the English counties, like Northumberland, that border it. The grays are larger and tougher and meaner than the reds. They can eat newly fallen acorns, and the reds cannot. They cross open lands that the reds are scared of. They are more sociable than reds, allowing for higher population densities. Although gray males cannot mate with red females, they often intimidate red males out of doing so. “It’s like: ‘That’s my girl. You move away!’ ” Redesdale said.
The situation has now reached a crisis point: there are only an estimated 160,000 red squirrels left in Britain, whereas there are more than 2 million grays. Without human intervention, reds could be gone from England in 10 years. The red squirrel is a national icon, and the British government is trying hard to save it. Deliberately killing a red squirrel or disturbing its nest, called a drey, is a crime. Last year the government set up more than a dozen refuges for red squirrels in the north of England. The country’s National Lottery granted £626,000 to a group called Save Our Squirrels to run the reserves. Save Our Squirrels, or S.O.S., is a who’s who of British conservation organizations, among them the Mammals Trust and Natural England. It has a toll-free number for reporting sightings of grays and reds and works to raise public awareness of the red’s plight.
Redesdale, too, has planted his standard on behalf of the red army. Last year, with a grant of £148,000 from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he founded an organization called the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership. The work of Redesdale’s organization is different from that of S.O.S. It shoots, or traps and then smashes on the head, every gray it can find. It currently has 20 core members, with another 150 or so irregulars.
The day I met Redesdale, he had broken off the long summer holiday from the House of Lords to try to enlist new recruits. A woman named Sue Southworth, the proprietor of the Squirrels Pantry Tea Room, was holding a meeting in her home in Cockermouth on the red squirrel. Redesdale had driven two hours to be there. He told me he knew the crowd would not be big, but his organization practices retail species elimination — he says he wants a trap in every backyard from Carlisle to Newcastle — and every pair of hands counts. He is enthusiastic and unapologetic about his work and does not use euphemisms the way the S.O.S. organizations do. “What is this ‘method of cranial concussion’?” Redesdale asked Southworth and the two other women who met him in Southworth’s high-ceilinged living room, quoting something he had heard at a red-squirrel preservation conference. “Why not just say ‘hit on the head’? Sounds better.”
Red squirrels evoke strong emotions in many Britons, especially in the north where people still grow up seeing them. And to be sure, these women, Southworth in particular, were passionate about them. There was a set of Beatrix Potter figurines on a shelf in Southworth’s living room, including one of Squirrel Nutkin, the eponymous red squirrel of one of Potter’s best-known books, and there were red-squirrel pillows and fleece blankets. Outside in her garden, Southworth had a red-squirrel topiary, with two bumps for paws, evocative of the Venus of Willendorf in shrub.
“Can I, um, suggest something?” Redesdale said to the three women. He was seated on a couch with a red-squirrel throw. “I was thinking . . . it would be great to form a sort of mobile kill group.” He explained: “We just knock on people’s doors and find out if there’s a gray and get them to put the traps in.” One person a day, he said, would go around and do the actual killings. The women gave Redesdale a “Candid Camera” look. Was this a joke?
Redesdale doesn’t travel alone. Always by his side is a man named Paul Parker. Parker is a professional pest controller from Newcastle. He keeps 300 dead grays in his freezer, seven of them skinned, waiting for the day he will have time to cook them. When I asked Redesdale how many squirrels the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership had killed to date, he said, “We’ve taken 2,000 whatsis. . . .” and Parker added, in his heavy Newcastle accent, “2,000 — 300 — 32.” They laughed like boys killing flies for sport.
“And then at the end of the week,” Redesdale continued, speaking to the three women, “we’ll probably have 1,000 squirrels taken out. If we do that, that will knock them back two years in their advance.” He added, “We’d get a lot of publicity.”
“And the fun of killing them as well,” Parker said. Parker and Redesdale laughed again, Falstaff and Prince Hal. This time the women smiled too, a bit nervously.
So did the women want to be part of the solution? Redesdale asked.
They hesitated. Redesdale and Parker seemed like pranksters. On the other hand, they were government-financed pranksters.
“Aye,” they said.
“Brilliant,” Redesdale said.
Parker took out his business card. The women looked a bit doubtful again. It had a three-dimensional image of a mole on it and the words: “Ants, Bees, Wasps, Bed bugs, Fleas. Cluster flies, Woodworm, Snails. Rapid response.”
The first gray squirrels came to Britain to amuse the rich, probably in the early 19th century. Landed gentry kept grays in cages as animal exemplars of can-do Yankee spirit. But in 1876, the gray passed from guest to resident in the British Isles. A Mr. Brocklehurst, who had brought over gray squirrels from America, released two on his property near Cheshire in central England. Many more releases took place. The wealthy had grown bored of the grays and set them loose.
They spread quickly. By 1910, they were spotted in Woburn, about 50 miles to the northwest of London, and they reached Wales, 150 miles away, by the mid-1920s. Few Britons were pleased, but little was done about the problem. It was the more numerous native red squirrel that was in the rifle sights of the time. In the early decades of the century, for instance, a hunting association called the Highland Squirrel Club killed 82,000 red squirrels, in part to protect the timber industry. (Squirrels damage trees by stripping off the bark.)
But over time the red squirrel became beloved in Britain. It supplanted the realm’s old icon, the lion, as the symbol of a gentler, more evolved nation. There was Squirrel Nutkin, Potter’s irreverent playful red, and also Tufty Fluffytail, the Safety Squirrel, a public-service creation whose warnings about danger on the road began in the early 1950s and lasted until the ’80s. As the red rose in popularity, the gray sank in public esteem. Potter’s attempt to follow up Squirrel Nutkin with a story about a gray squirrel, Timmy Tiptoes, did not achieve the same success. In 1922, a government permanent secretary was quoted in The Times of London calling grays “sneaking, thieving, fascinating little alien villains.”
A nationalist subtext attached to the objections to the grays. “I know of more than one patriotic Englishman who has been embittered against the whole American nation on account of the presence of their squirrels in his garden,” wrote the Oxford squirrel authority A. D. Middleton in 1931. When the Forestry Commission began an investigation in the late ’20s of the effect of grays, a New York Times article bore the headline “American Squirrel on Trial for His Life in England” and suggested a fair jury would be hard to find. In 1932, Britain indicted the gray: it classed it as a pest and made it a crime to release one into the wild. That meant there was only one way out for any gray caught in a trap. A National Anti-Grey Squirrel Campaign enforced the sentence.
Many bad things were said about grays at the time, but then as now, the heart of the English objection to the grays comes down to this: they outcompete the reds. They are simply better at the job of being squirrels. Britain’s taste for unfettered competition has always been fitful, and how much it tipped the playing field in favor of the reds varied. At first, the job of controlling grays was largely left to the private landowners who had first imported them. But as the grays pushed up England, the government got involved. Beginning in the 1930s, it offered half a shilling per gray-squirrel tail, eventually raising the bounty to 2. The arrangement was politically popular but flawed: farmers and ranchers had a good reason to kill gray squirrels but no reason to eliminate them entirely. In the late ’50s, the government called off the program after estimating that there were more grays than before. From then until the early 2000s, and especially during the Thatcher-Major years, when the British government re-enthroned competition in Britain, the gray was left alone, and it extended its range, at the expense of the red, from the top of Wales to the Scottish border.
Redesdale and Parker didn’t tell me there was going to be a gray squirrel in the trunk of their car. We were in the gift shop at the south end of the Northumberland national park, near the town of Hexham. It was the day after the meeting in Sue Southworth’s living room, and Redesdale had promised to take me to see a place where he had cleared out grays and the reds had come back in. He and Parker had been busy. The gray toll was now 2,353, up 21 from the day before.
Redesdale sat with Parker, who was dressed in the exterminator outfit he wears: toxic-green sweater and pants. With them was a local groundskeeper. They were looking at maps of Northumberland, seeing how the war was going. Redesdale explained the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership to the groundskeeper. “So you on board for being part of the killing team?” he asked the man.
Redesdale has a strained relationship with the main red-squirrel protection groups: they need him; they call him sometimes when they get a gray squirrel sighting over their toll-free hot line; but he takes up a lot of their time. Carri Nicholson, the project manager for S.O.S., told me that she thinks of Redesdale as a kind of naughty child. “If you can’t play nicely, you’ll have to go to your room,” she said she tells him.
Most of all, S.O.S. officials say they wish Redesdale would trap squirrels only where reds and grays are currently competing, in the north, rather than in areas more toward the south, like Hexham, which are considered a lost cause. “Lord Redesdale wants to get rid of grays all over Northumberland,” Peter Lurz, an ecologist at Newcastle University, told me. “I think it’s a tall order. You’re dealing with a rodent that has two litters a year.” He added, “Unless you remove 70 percent of the rodents you’re just making room for the litters.” He suggested that Redesdale’s efforts had only “psychological impact.”
Lurz was an architect of the plan for the red-squirrel reserves that the government established last year: 16 in the north of England. He based his plan on the observation he made in the field that because the red squirrel is smaller than the gray, it can live on less food. It does fine, for instance, in a conifer forest, without rich acorns and beechnuts; in such an environment the grays will leave for a better habitat elsewhere. As it happens, the large conifer forests in Britain are in the north, where the reds remain. According to the initial government plan, S.O.S. would monitor the red and gray squirrel populations in the refuges. The Forestry Commission would replenish conifer trees that make the habitat desirable for reds. And the government would establish buffer zones along the perimeters — places where it would encourage landowners to kill any grays they found. The reserves seemed a fitting solution for postcolonial Britain. The gray would keep what it had won. The red, like the British themselves, would content itself with a small homeland in return for peace.
The refuges might have held the grays back, at least for a while, but as they were being created, it became clear to Lurz that any contact between grays and reds — even the minimal amount occurring in the refuges — was going to be catastrophic. This is because grays have yet another weapon in their arsenal: they carry a virus, to which they appear to be immune, that kills the reds. The disease, called squirrelpox, is awful to see: it turns the soft tissues around their eyes, ears and nose to sludge. Death comes within two weeks. Last summer, Lurz, having carefully studied squirrel-population records, calculated that where infected grays mixed with reds, the reds very quickly disappeared. “It was too much of a coincidence,” Lurz told me. In fact, he noted, “dirty” grays took land away from reds at roughly 20 times the rate healthy grays did.
Lurz estimates that two-thirds of grays carry the squirrelpox virus. In light of Lurz’s work, it was clear that buffer zones alone would not save the red squirrels. The only solution was to start killing grays and to kill them quickly. Scotland, which has refuges that are administered separately from those of England and Wales, took up arms. It hired two culling officers to trap at key spots along its border with England. (I asked to meet with them but was told that “for their safety” I would not be allowed.)
In England, however, nothing similar happened. The blue-chip organizations associated with S.O.S. spoke passionately of saving the reds, but, sensitive to the opposition of animal-rights groups, they have not made trapping a priority. “They just keep faffing around,” Redesdale says. He calls them “talking shops.” In fact, the hands of S.O.S. are somewhat tied: its National Lottery grant specifically forbids using its funds to cull grays. “Until we can get better funding,” Nicholson, the project manager for S.O.S., says, “the most we can achieve is stasis.”
There may not really be any reason to do more: red squirrels, after all, are not scarce outside the British Isles. In fact, worldwide — reds live throughout Europe and Asia — they probably outnumber grays. It is only in Britain (and more recently in Italy, where grays were introduced in 1948) that the red is considered threatened. In addition, Britain is not a place where killing animals goes down easily anymore. Animal-rights advocates put themselves between the hunter and the fox he pursued until hunting with hounds was outlawed a few years ago after extensive parliamentary debate. Highways have toad crossings. Many people prefer to build little bridges for squirrels over roadways — the S.O.S. Web site provides a blueprint — than to spend their time killing animals.
This mood shifts only when an animal threatens the carefully set ecological dinner party that is rural England. I saw this force at work when Redesdale and Parker set out to convert a woman at the gift shop at the Northumberland national park. Like many people Redesdale talks to, she was at first surprised at what he told her. She said she thought she was part of the effort already: she supported Save Our Squirrels.
Redesdale clarified: “There are two organizations. They promote red squirrels; we kill grays. We just kill grays.”
“We just kill grays, that’s all,” Parker echoed.
The woman, who looked to be in her 60s, gave the “Candid Camera” look.
“But surely the two go together, don’t they?” she asked.
Redesdale explained why they did not. He said that to preserve reds you had to wage war on the grays without pity.
“We used to often see red squirrels, but I don’t think we’ve seen any recently,” the woman said.
Redesdale laid out the details of his trapping plan. “We can probably give you a trap today — we just have to get rid of the occupant,” Redesdale said, referring to the one in the trunk of his car. He and Parker laughed. Redesdale gave his handsome goofy smile, flashed his excellent teeth.
The woman held on: “It’s a shame because they are quite nice in a way” — grays — “when they are climbing the tree.”
Redesdale broke in: “If they weren’t wiping out the reds we wouldn’t be doing this. The other thing is they do wipe out the birds.”
This seemed to give her pause. Songbirds are popular in rural England. “I had a nice mistle thrush nesting at the bottom of my garden and the magpies came,” she remembered sadly.
Sensing his opportunity, Redesdale told Parker to give the woman his card.
She took it and read it. She looked like she had been tricked.
“We’ve got to get you a proper card made up,” Redesdale said to Parker.
In March 2006, the House of Lords debated the question of the red squirrel, one of its favorites. It was logical that the august body would be interested in red squirrels. Many members of the House own lots of land, their taste tends to be nostalgic and they themselves might be seen as endangered — the government has cut the number of hereditary peers in the House nearly 90 percent in the last decade.
Earl Peel rose to call attention to the decline in numbers of the reds and its significance. “To many,” he said, “the red squirrel represents an integral part of our woodland landscape — an iconic creature, immortalized by Beatrix Potter, through the charismatic character of Squirrel Nutkin.” But before turning his attention to Squirrel Nutkin, Earl Peel proposed conducting “a brief health check” of various other Beatrix Potter characters. “Starting with Tabitha Twitchit and Tom Kitten” — both cats — “they are truly on top of their game. . . . Let us now consider the status of Mr. Tod, 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.” He went on: “That brings me on seamlessly to the other really controversial character that graced the class of 1912 — and that of course is Tommy Brock,” Potter’s badger. “Hasn’t he done well?”
Peel continued: “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. Tod, has managed to secure his very own legislation.”
Peel concluded his health check: “Squirrel Nutkin must look back on his alma mater and think to himself, ‘How could it have all gone so wretchedly wrong for me?’ ”
Redesdale rose to congratulate Peel. “My Lords,” he said, “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 gray squirrels. I hate to say that his postbag will immediately be filled with letters from irate people who love gray squirrels.”
He continued: “One of the problems in the public perception is that gray 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 gray squirrels crisps by hand. In Regent’s Park, a gray squirrel came up to my son and me and actually climbed up my leg to look in my pocket.”
Lord Hoyle soon cut off Redesdale: “My Lords, perhaps they are friendlier in Regent’s Park than they are in St. James’s Park. One that ran up my leg bit me.”
Redesdale resumed: “Efforts involving buffer zones have been undertaken to halt the advance of the gray squirrel. It is unfortunate that in Northumberland, when there was talk of a cull of gray squirrels, there was such public outcry that much of that work had to be deferred.”
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, the 21st to hold that title in Scotland, then spoke to point out the inherent superiority of the red over the gray squirrel: “Red squirrels,” she said, “are rather like quiet, well-behaved people who do not make a nuisance or an exhibition of themselves or commit crimes and so do not get themselves into the papers in the vulgar way gray squirrels do.” She continued: “Red squirrels do not strip bark from trees; damage arable crops, market gardens and garden plants; dig up bulb and corms from recently sown seed; eat birds’ eggs; or eat telephone wires and electricity cables, as gray squirrels do.” Lady Saltoun suggested some research be done on whether gray squirrels tasted good. She foresaw a fight at the dinner table: “I have a nasty feeling that . . . children in particular would say, ‘Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly eat that,’ just as they say they cannot eat dear little bunny rabbits. But this is worth having a look at.”
Lord Inglewood concluded with a call to action. “We have been far too intellectual about this and tried to be far too clever,” he said. The matter was simple: “There has to be at least some killing of gray squirrels.” To Inglewood’s mind, British governments over the years, regardless of political persuasion, were guilty of “squeamishness.” And “as far as the red squirrel is concerned,” he went on, “squeamishness spells nemesis for this lovely and iconic creature. Those involved with trying to preserve the red squirrel in this country have adopted a policy of appeasement towards the grays. The red squirrels have had Chamberlains and not Churchills, but it is Churchills that they need.” Inglewood finished with a dark prediction: “Unless something radical and imaginative is done . . . Squirrel Nutkin and his friends and relations are going to be toast.”
The gray in the trunk of the car still awaited us. “We gray squirrels who are about to die salute you,” Redesdale said. We walked back to the vehicle, parked near the gift shop. Parker had said he wanted me to shoot the squirrel — that grays were in Britain was, after all, my fault as an American — and I did not want to. He had also asked Redesdale to shoot the squirrel, and he did not want to either. Now Redesdale seemed to be summoning his nerve. “We keep on being told by the bunny-huggers, you know the wildlife-trust people, I mean I’m all for — I mean killing things to me is bad,” he said. “I’m all for it but at some point you have to nail your colors to the mast.”
I had by that point learned more about Redesdale: he and his wife met at a human rights conference; he has mixed feelings about being a lord (“No one really cares if it’s you that shows up”); when he first sat in the House of Lords, at age 23, he looked across at a cousin who was the Tory whip and remembers thinking, “I’d rather eat warm vomit,” after which he joined the Liberal Democrats, a party that, he points out proudly, is to the left of Labor; and he does not like guns (“I don’t see the sport in hunting”).
All the same, Redesdale was the officer; Parker, the enlisted man. If Redesdale did not kill the squirrel, he would never be able to lead. And had his family not led for 1,000 years? So we drove to an isolated parking lot, and Parker took the cage out of the trunk. He put the trap — “it’s me killing trap,” he said — on the asphalt. This was the place this animal was going to die.
The squirrel, large and dark gray with just a hint of red to his fur, wheeled around the cage looking for a way out. Then it made a piteous noise, a whee-whee-whee sound. Parker handed the air rifle to Redesdale, and he pointed it.
“That’s the, uh, trigger?” Redesdale said.
“That’s right,” Parker said.
The squirrel paused. Redesdale steadied the barrel over its head. Then came the shot.
“You’ve got it,” Parker said softly.
But he hadn’t.
“Is it dead?” I asked stupidly.
The squirrel raced around the cage, blood dripping from somewhere around its mouth. WHEE-WHEE-WHEE. The same noise.
“I know it’s bad when they run,” Redesdale apologized. I thought I saw the warm-vomit look in his eyes.
The squirrel kept running and finally stopped when it realized there was still nowhere to go. Redesdale once more placed the rifle over its head. POP! The squirrel fell on its side and shook, scrabbled and shimmied twice around the cage like a break dancer.
“They’re dead when they do that, aren’t they?” Redesdale said, sounding more Macbeth than Prince Hal. Parker assured him it was dead: these were just the death throes. Parker put the dead squirrel — number 2,354 — and the cage back in the trunk, and we trooped out of the parking lot to look for reds.
Parker said he had done a lot of trapping in the area. Some of his traps are just cages on the ground, but here Parker had set one about two feet off the ground, connecting a blackthorn tree and a pine tree via a cross-strut. Some bird feed and a half a coconut dangled above. The gray was supposed to sample the coconut and feed and then come down the trunk and try Parker’s trademark hazelnuts, drilled for easy access, inside the trap. The smell of the grays caught earlier in the trap is supposed to keep the reds away. But today the trap was empty. An owl waited high in a tree, looking down at us from above its white-ruffled collar. Redesdale’s mobile rang. It was Sky TV. They wanted him to be on to talk about the new foot-and-mouth outbreak and were willing to send a van to his home. “Brilliant,” he said.
Then we saw movement in the blackthorn tree. There was a red-orange flash high off the ground. We drew together and watched a red squirrel from behind a stone building as it silently tumbled and turned. In direct sunlight, its plush tail seemed almost blonde. Other times it was russet. It stood on its hind legs.
This was the red-squirrel money shot, the one on the fund-raising postcards: rounded rump, fluffy russet tail curled up and over the back, almost to the point of touching the squirrel’s head. The head itself is inclined slightly, and the paws are brought together around the acorn or beechnut. In this position the red looks like a tiny country vicar giving advice to a young married couple or like a trusted servant who is suggesting gently that His Grace might wish to come to dinner. Seen in profile, the paws are where breasts would be and convey a sense of the delicacy and femininity of the animal.
I could see even from below how soft the red’s fur was. Its belly was white, giving it a two-toned Twenties sort of elegance. Its plushness made me think of bunnies or maybe even baby bears or lemurs. The red squirrel’s head was wide and gave the face a roundness, which combined with the huge ears suggested a newborn baby. There were no tufts on this one — reds loose their tufts in summer — but even without them, it looked like an old man who had rolled out of bed.
Like millions of Americans, I see gray squirrels in my yard every day. They have that helter-skelter, fritzed-out agitated and agitating quality, that urban jumpiness. They always seem to be watching you. This red, by contrast, was uninterested in us, benignly disdainful, like one of the spirits of the forest, the trolls under the bridge and the wise little sprites who appear on tree limbs to play tricks. It wanted to be there. It belonged there. But it was hard to believe it would be there long.
D. T. Max, a frequent contributor, is the author of “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery,” a scientific and cultural history of prion diseases, which is now out in paperback.