Louise Gray on why grey squirrel is an ethical and tasty meat option
Grey squirrels are beautiful creatures. Like many visitors to Borough Market, I love to see them in the surrounding parks and gardens.
But in many parts of the country, they are considered pests. Ever since introduction from America at the end of the 19th century, the species has spread. There are now estimated to be 2.5 million in the UK as a whole.
The rodents can be a problem for forestry management, since they strip the bark of trees such as beech, oak and sycamore. The Forestry Commission manage the population to protect timber.
Grey squirrels are also blamed in part for the reduction of the native red squirrel population, which is now estimated to be only 140,000. As well as habitat loss, one of the reasons red squirrels are struggling is because of the spread of a disease called squirrel pox. While grey squirrels are largely immune, red squirrels introduced to the pox will soon die. Grey squirrels are also bigger than reds and compete for food sources.
Gamekeepers and volunteers
In parts of the country where red squirrels are still surviving, largely in the north and Scotland, gamekeepers and volunteers are controlling grey squirrel numbers to try to stop the spread of the disease. No one wants to eradicate the grey population but the hope is that by keeping numbers down in certain areas, it will allow the reds to survive until a vaccine is found.
I visited one of these projects run by The Scottish Wildlife Trust in Dumfries and Galloway for my book, The Ethical Carnivore. The project has been a success in preventing the grey population from spreading further north and impacting on the red population. Richard Thomson, the gamekeeper, often cooks grey squirrels for friends and gave me one from the freezer.
It was my first time cooking grey squirrel and I wanted to make sure it was tasty, so I adapted a Nigella Lawson recipe for chicken satay. My girlfriends liked it so much that when I went on tour with my book this summer, I developed the recipe to make sticky squirrel satay sticks. The audience always enjoyed them. I would recommend serving the snacks at a dinner party to impress your friends, both with your cooking skills and efforts to support conservation work in the countryside.
Dark, lean meat
Squirrel is a dark, lean meat, most similar to rabbit. Depending on the age of the animal it can be gamey, but with slow cooking or a marinade it will soon tenderise. In the US it has long been considered a speciality and it is rising in popularity in the UK. Gill Meller’s recent award-winning book Gather has three recipes for squirrel.
If you would like to give it a try, you can buy squirrel from The Exotic Meat Company in Borough Market. Don’t worry, the squirrels are not from London. It is sourced from the north of England and Scotland, where greys are being controlled as part of forestry management or conservation of the red squirrel population.
It might indeed be exotic, but in terms of a free range, ethical meat option, what could be better than grey squirrel?