Grey Squirrels – should we eat them?
The Guardian newspaper (UK) has announced that the grey squirrel is gaining popularity - as a meal. Costing approximately £3.50 per squirrel, the meat is said to be sweet, "like a cross between lamb and duck". One animal is said to feed one and a half adults.
You can also add to the debate by leaving a comment at the end of the page.
Not subject to claims of animal cruelty or mass production.
The squirrel is entirely free range and there are copious amounts available for the taking. They are not kept cooped up in small pens, are not subject to overcrowding or force feeding and there is little risk of the meat being tainted with antibiotic or hormone.
Squirrel farming is not usually profitable, especially at the moment when it isn't widely popular. If it were to become more popular, laws and effective law enforcement would prevent large scale squirrel farming. Some will slip under the radar, but most will not.
If squirrel were to become part of the mainstream diet, then it is inevitable that they would begin to be farmed in order to bring prices down through increased production. Then they would be subject to the same problems as any other mass produced food source.
Low fat, versatile meat.
Squirrel meat is said to be very low fat, which can only be a good thing for this nation, having as it does a reputation for becoming rapidly obese.
The Guardian claims it is especially delicious in a Tandoori, or fricasseed with Cornish cream and walnuts, but really comes into its own as a Cornish squirrel pasty, for which the paper helpfully provides a recipe.
Patriotic and green.
There are virtually no food miles involved in eating a squirrel, no plant processing, no excessive packaging, no need to import meat from foreign climes, and, say its fans, it's patriotic.
Grey squirrels are renowned for putting the currently protected red squirrel in its current state of verging on extinction.
"Eat a grey, save a red" comes the cry.
At two litters a year, averaging five babies each time, the source isn't going to dry up any time soon.
A relief for homeowners?
Squirrels like to live in attics, and why not? It's warm, comfortable and dry, just the place for a noisy, messy little creature to live. They are remarkably adept at raiding bird feeders and tables, scaring off garden birds, and cause untold damage to fruit bushes and trees.
But whilst some people can perhaps handle a little noise from the attic or buy squirrel-proof birdfeeders, there's a more worrying side to having bushy-tailed lodgers. Being rodents and having continuously growing teeth, squirrels chew, which does not make for a good tenant.
Chewing through electrical wiring, for example, puts the house at serious risk of a fire, or at the very least, electrocution to the unwitting householder. Damage to wooden joists and supports weakens the structure. None of this is good news for the homeowner, so on this note, removal or reduction of the furry lodgers is a good thing.
Supporting local business.
Because the squirrel is slaughtered by local hunters, and sold by local butchers, it supports local business. Nobody can argue that this is a bad thing; chain supermarkets have been trying to dominate the market for some time by underpricing and undercutting local, family owned stores.
Often local stores are forced to go out of business as a result, leaving people unemployed, shops empty and High St's plummeting into decline.
it is better than a cull and the carcass being destroyed.
They may only be small and you may not think that the grey squirrel is that much of a problem. However as it has already been stated, they are the reason for the decline in our native red squirrel. Grey squirrels have become a serious pest, and culling is absolutely essential, and large numbers of grey squirrel carcasses go to waste as a result of culling. It would be much better to put the carcasses to good use as meat, rather than simply discarding them.
It would help pay for a cull
Grey Squirrels are a pest that need to be eradicated from the UK, for various reasons, and by selling the meat, a cull would pay for itself, especially if the meat becomes popular. In a time when money is tight, something like this will be a godsend for Red Squirrel conservation groups, and would also benefit farmers and gamekeepers who sometimes have to trap squirrels as part of their job.
But is it safe?
Grey squirrels carry the squirrelpox virus. Although this does not affect them, it is highly contagious and fatal to red squirrels, killing them in as little as 15 days.
Do we really want to eat meat carrying a virus? Is it transmissible to humans? Do we want another "mad cow" disease epidemic on our hands? Maybe it should be kept off the shelves and in the trees until we are assured that it carries no risk to humans.
And on a slightly light-hearted note, but one to certainly consider – will the meat be suitable for nut allergy sufferers?
You raise a valid concern, but if it turns out the virus does not transmit to humans, then eating the virus-carrying squirrel would benefit both humans and red squirrels. I have no data, but I'm willing to bet that a non-negligible portion of the foods we eat carry viruses to which we are not susceptible. Even if I'm wrong, the point remains that it is not whether the meat contains a virus that is the question. It is whether that virus is 1) transmittable and 2) harmful.
To quote a friend of mine "there are two kinds of squirrels: fryers and stewers. All stewers were once fryers, but not all fryers will become stewers" :)
Not as cheap as it first appears?
At around £3.50 per animal, for a large family or for a dinner party, the cost is rather prohibitive. For ten guests, the meat alone would cost you roughly £35, whereas a more traditional large turkey or joint could be purchased for less.
We shoot squirrels on a friend's farm and we get them almost for free, apart from costs of cartridges. For those who have access to this option, it is a good idea.
Also, competition eventually drives prices down. If more people started eating it, more shops would sell it and would lower their prices to compete with each other. The resulting price war drives down prices, just like it does in any shop. Competition drives down prices.
Finally - the "yuk" factor!
Plainly and simply, there’s the "yuk" factor. As the Observer newspaper’s resident restaurant critic, Jay Rayne stated, "he had never tasted squirrel, but if he did have it for dinner ‘it would have to be a big, fat country squirrel and not one of the mangy urban ones you see in cities’".
And that’s a good point. Having seen the way squirrels live, compared to a free range chicken, for example, I would have to pass on the squirrel on this point alone.
Given the choice between an animal that rummages through dustbins, eats rotting scraps of household waste and is often infested with fleas or a chicken that has been bedded on nice clean straw, and let out to wander through a clean green field and fed on juicy yellow corn, then I say "pass the sage and onion stuffing", every time!
First of all, I don't believe fleas are likely to negatively impact the quality of meat! And I believe it is exactly this 'yuk' sensitivity that has so much of the population refusing to eat anything but sanitised pre-packaged meat - or refusing to eat vegetables don't conform to EU shape standards.
However, I think the point may be null and void - as a comparison can be drawn between urban or country squirrels just as it can between urban pigeons and wood pigeons. And in the same way we choose not to eat urban pigeons, we also choose only to hunt country squirrels, who, as the article states, live on a diet of "berries and nuts".
What do you think?