Pass the braised squirrel, dear, and think of England

Tom Parry on the unique U.K. battle against the foreign-born grey squirrel.

The first thing I noticed when I climbed into Paul Parker's battered white van was the squirrel tail hanging from the rear-view mirror. I knew right away I'd come to the right place.

I had travelled up to Newcastle to meet Parker, a man whose mission is to strike a mortal blow against that scourge of the English countryside, the grey squirrel.

The greys, which were brought to Britain from North America in the late 1800s, have, over the years, taken over the island. As a result, the native red squirrels have been all but forced out by their larger, more adaptable cousins.

But now, a conservation group calling itself the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership has hired Parker — an exterminator by trade — as its grey-squirrel hit man.

Grey squirrel hunter Paul Parker outside Newcastle, England. (Tom Parry/CBC)

Parker's job is to give the reds a chance to bounce back.

'Dispatching' the greys

"It's a full, flat-out war, that's what it is," Parker told me, as we drove out of town to check out some of the almost 900 traps Parker has spread out around Newcastle.

From the back of van, I could hear a scurrying, scratching sound. 

"We got one in the back," Parker informed me. "We're going to dispatch it." 

Dispatch, of course, is a polite way of saying kill. Parker's preferred method is a shot to the back of the head, execution style, with a pellet gun.

After he pulled our unfortunate passenger out of the back, I admit I had to look away when Parker placed the barrel of the pellet gun to the bars of the long metal cage and waited for the precise moment to squeeze the trigger.

Parker figures he's dispatched more than 20,000 greys in not quite two years. That's a tiny portion of the estimated three million grey squirrels that inhabit Britain today.

CBC reporter Tom Parry's radio report of Britain's squirrel wars can be heard here. (Runs 3:59.)

But Parker and the others working to wipe out the greys are now trying to unleash a new weapon on their enemy — the British appetite for unusual fare.

Try the pâté

"The only thing they're good for is eating," Parker observes, as we drove to the Manor House Inn outside Newcastle.

At the inn, chef Jason Long has been buying squirrels from Parker and offering them on his menu. A plumpish grey can be had for the Canadian equivalent of about $5.50 and retails at butcher shops for a couple of dollars more.

"I braise it for about six to eight hours, depending on the size," Long explains, "a slow braise for a long, long time with lots of root vegetables and lots of herbs. I cook it very, very slowly. I find it's the best way."

Long says his customers compare the taste of squirrel to rabbit. So far, no one has compared it to eating a rat with a bushy tail.

In fact, taking up the cause, red-squirrel lovers have embraced the slogan "Save a Red, Eat a Grey."

Squirrel meat is showing up at specialty butcher shops and restaurants with a taste for the exotic.

A day's taking. Inside Parker's van outside Newcastle. (Tom Parry/CBC)

Offerings can also be found at country fairs, ground and mixed into meat pies or served as a pâté.

A royal pest

It's fair to say grey squirrels have few friends in Britain. Even Prince Charles has called for them to be wiped out.

Still, some people are uneasy with the push to exterminate these pesky creatures.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says it's not sure killing greys will do anything to help bring back the red squirrel.

What's more, even some conservationists, who are trying to save the reds, are concerned about the high-profile campaign to eradicate their enemies.

Carri Nicholson, a project manager for the Save our Squirrels Project, is all for trapping, killing and eating the plumper greys. Still, she says, she finds it unsettling when she sees Parker in the media boasting about the thousands of squirrels he's killed.

"We're doing the same thing, but we don't brag about it," says Nicholson. She fears too much publicity will bring down the wrath of animal rights activists.

For his part, Paul Parker is unrepentant. "You're always going to get people who say it's cruel," he says. "But they don't really understand these animals, the damage they do."

Parker says he'll keep up his battle against the greys as long as the Red Squirrel Partnership keeps paying him (two days or 16 hours a week at $18 an hour).

He dreams of a day when Britain is free of the foreign grey and when its native reds, down to an estimated 160,000, by one count, can scamper unhindered once again.

But that day is still likely a long way off. With the estimated three million greys on the island, the British public will need an awfully big appetite for squirrel if they hope to get rid of them all.