Woodland Watch Week 22 – 14/08/2013

This week, we’re focusing on just one of the creatures that have made the woodland their home not just here in the Woodland Watch wood but all over the UK. I have seen many of these little mammals racing about in the coppice canopy and even more evidence of them all around the wood through the last few months. Have you worked out what we’re talking about yet?…Yep, you got it…The grey squirrel!

The Grey Squirrel

The Grey Squirrel

The grey squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is a familiar sight all over Britain, despite being a non-native, and most would argue, an invasive species. Grey squirrels were introduced from North America in 1876 by the Victorians who considered them an exotic species. Since then they have spread throughout most of the UK, almost completely displacing the native red squirrel .

Grey squirrels are not fussy eaters, which to a certain extent explains their displacement of their red counterparts. They are mainly herbivorous, eating predominantly acorns, hazelnuts, berries, fungi, bark, buds and shoots. However, on rare occasions when food is scarce they will also eat insects, smaller rodents, bird eggs and nestlings. Red squirrels have a similar diet, but they are unable to digest seeds with high tannin content, such as acorns, which limits the food sources. They are also able to make much better use of unripe acorns and hazelnuts and this is clearly visible in the woodland.

Unripe hazelnuts broken open by squirrels for food

Unripe hazelnuts broken open by squirrels for food

Although my iPhone camera has let me down again here, you can get the idea! The woodland floor is littered with unripe hazelnut shells which have been split open by squirrels enabling them to get to the nuts for food before other species are able to consume this resource.

The introduced grey squirrel has been so successful in displacing its native cousin partly because it is bigger and stronger, able to find more food and store more fat in its body for winter. This allows it to out-compete the red squirrel, which has lower survival and breeding rates. A second reason is the Parapoxvirus, which causes a fatal infection in red squirrels. Grey squirrels are not affected, but act as carriers, spreading the virus to red squirrels in the vicinity.

As well as the feeding signs around the woodland, there are also a lot of signs of squirrel damage to the trees. Grey squirrels strip bark around stems and branches of trees. Bark stripping damage usually starts at the end of April and continues until the end of July (early September in high-risk years). Grey squirrels do not strip bark at any other time of year. Trees may be stripped anywhere on the main stem and branches, with vigorously growing and dominant trees generally being most affected.

An example of squirrel damage in the wood

An example of squirrel damage in the wood

The Forestry Commission have produced a great publication all about grey squirrel damage in woodlands which can be viewed at:

http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/fcpn004.pdf/$file/fcpn004.pdf

Now, it wouldn’t be one of my blogs if there wasn’t some mention of eating something, so if you’re a vegetarian, you might want to stop reading at this point! Squirrel arguably provides one of the most ethical meats you can eat in the UK. Completely free range, low in fat and as the countryside is overrun with squirrels and population control is often deemed necessary, why not eat them?

There’s a great recipe here for spanish braised squirrel:

http://www.wildmeat.co.uk/orderform.htm?ac=EZKF4-6

Spanish Braised Squirrel

Spanish Braised Squirrel

While the woods have a lot of signs of squirrels, they’re not causing any huge problems here and are likely to be left alone at least for the near future. However, across the wider countryside, there are many areas where squirrels are causing major problems to woodlands and population control is an ongoing options.

As an arboricultural company we see many examples of squirrel damaged trees and I can certainly appreciate the need for population control. However I also hate to see any creature being wasted, so if we’re going to control squirrel populations, why not eat them?

That’s it for this week. Join us next week for another walk in the woods as we’re heading closer and closer to autumn.

Until then, enjoy your own walks in the woods!

Treecreeper Arborists – http://www.tree-creeper.com