Britain is a nation of animal lovers, a place where citizens are willing to take to the streets over fox hunting and badger culling. But when it comes to squirrels, some animals are more equal than others.
For years, it has been government policy there to kill Eastern gray squirrels in an attempt to protect Britain’s beleaguered red squirrel population.
But now there’s a backlash. At the forefront of the save-the-grays movement is Professor Acorn.
“I don’t believe that culling large numbers of animals ever works,” said Acorn, a.k.a. Neil Macmillan, a 35-year-old from Glasgow, Scotland, who helps run a website and Facebook page devoted to stopping the gray squirrel slaughter.
“A lot of people don’t hear the other side, particularly,” Macmillan said. “Which is why we arrange letters in newspapers. We try and get newspapers to print information, which they’re willing to do as time goes on.”
Gray supporters — well, “grey” over there — also set up booths at wildlife shows and in town markets, engaging passersby and handing out pro-gray literature.
It can be an uphill battle. The gray squirrel — a 19th-century import from the United States that is considered an invasive species — is often described in the British media as an overbearing, overweight, ravenous, disease-ridden pest.
“I think a lot of it is sort of designed to make them seem like a military force taking over the country and wiping out and pillaging red squirrels as they go,” Macmillan said of the freighted language. “There’s no animal that I know of that uses that tactic. In fact, they live their lives.”
That’s become increasingly harder for grays. They still vastly outnumber reds in the United Kingdom — in some estimates, it’s nearly 3 million vs. a little more than 100,000 — but culls have helped create “buffer zones,” where it’s hoped the tufted-ear reds can gain a pawhold.
Macmillan says grays are convenient scape squirrels. Reds were themselves culled a century ago, when foresters were convinced they were damaging woodlands.
Reds really declined, he said, because the British themselves cut down the trees the critters like, replacing coniferous forest with broadleaf woodlands. Where conifers remain — Scotland, for example — the reds seem to do okay.
Macmillan also thinks that grays get a bad rap as carriers of squirrel pox. He is convinced that the red squirrel lobby ignores the facts so it can keep the government-research-money spigot open.
And he argues that killing grays doesn’t even help that much.
“You get a rebound effect,” Macmillan said. “As you kill gray squirrels, the ones that are left get an increased food supply. With less competition, they breed more efficiently. You literally just can’t keep up with the birthrate of them.”
For many squirrel lovers, it comes down to an argument that echoes the Brexit fight: After nearly 150 years in the country, haven’t grays become British? Don’t they deserve the right to remain?
The Red Squirrel Survival Trust takes issue with many of Macmillan’s conclusions. Wrote the trust’s Jackie Foott in an email: “Grey squirrels will always ‘fill a void,’ so it is necessary to control them on a landscape-scale basis.”
She added: “Killing any animal is a very personal issue, whether it is to prevent damage to the environment or property, for food or to protect a native species. . . . The movement to cull the introduced, invasive gray squirrel from the U.K. is growing for many different reasons and at all levels, but, obviously, not everyone feels the same way.”
Before I hung up the phone with Macmillan, I mentioned that he has a tough battle on his hands. After all, Prince Charles is on the side of the reds. The heir to the throne has allowed culling of grays on his estate.
“We’ve got Prince Charles,” Macmillan said.
“Prince Charles is one of the most ridiculed figures in the whole of the U.K.,” Macmillan said. “If he supports red squirrels, it helps our campaign immensely.”
The battle continues.
While we’re on the subject of Great Britain, I learned something that substantially alters a pair of columns I wrote during Squirrel Week 2017.
You may recall the story of Benjamin Franklin’s squirrels. In 1771, Franklin was living in London as a representative of Pennsylvania. He often spent weekends at the home of Jonathan Shipley, a bishop who lived with his wife and children in Twyford, a village not far from Winchester.
But it turns out that when Mungo died, Twyford House was being renovated. The Shipleys were living at a place called Northwood House, 14 miles away in Chilbolton.
So that’s probably where Mungo was buried. Last summer I visited Northwood. Owner Jean Ward (Mrs.) graciously showed me around the house and the grounds. Alas, she’s never come across a squirrel tomb.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.