Furry, fast, occasionally chubby. Small, whiskered, bushy tailed. An expert climber. A nut eater. And grey.
For those in the UK, everything was going great until that last trait. You were probably thinking “cute” and “cuddly”, and feeling positive about this mystery mammal. Until you discover it is the grey and not the red squirrel.
Grey squirrels are a contradiction. They have all the characteristics of animals that people tend to love, and yet they are actively persecuted by humankind. BBC presenter Chris Packham calls them Britain’s “most unpopular non-native invader” – and one of their unflattering nicknames is the “tree rat”.
The Wildlife Trust has recently announced plans to recruit an army of 5,000 volunteers to monitor their endangered native relative, the red squirrel – and kill the greys.
Cute but criminal
So why such a bad press for grey squirrels? Firstly, they ain’t from around here: greys were deliberately introduced from North America in the late 19th century as an exotic addition to country estates. They soon spread across the UK, however, and today the invaders are the dominant squirrel across almost all of England and Wales and much of Scotland and Ireland.