Squirrel burger controversy in the Forest of Dean

The grey squirrel might look all cute and fluffy, but not if you happen to be a tree. People in the Forest of Dean know this, and take umbrage at the armies of these cuddly looking creatures roaming the forest. The grey squirrel has displaced our indigenous red squirrels (which are confined to a small area in Scotland) and strips the bark off trees, causing damage to the forest. However, they also go by the name of “the chicken of the trees”, and they could provide a plentiful source of free range meat.

If you feel shocked by the idea of eating one of our furry woodland chums, you needn’t be. Squirrel was a popular dish in the US and parts of Europe in centuries gone by. So, bearing this in mind, is eating squirrel really any different to chowing down on pheasant, duck or rabbit?

The Extraordinary Squirrel Burger Challenge at the Forest Showcase Festival (2014)

Fifteen lucky finalists had the opportunity to create their own squirrel burgers, using fresh squirrel meat straight from the forest. They added their own herbs and spices and other ingredients in this rather unusual competition.

Lawrence Jefferies from Gloucestershire College and Yvette Farrell from Harts Barn Cookery School were the judges for this event, which has attracted national media coverage. So, as you can imagine, there is an element of controversy to this story.

The BBC covered it and the Mail Online has also published its own take on it. You’ll see that the Mail has ‘spiced’ things up in its customary fashion, with talk of anti squirrel burger ‘activists’.

The Squirrel Burger Challenge has come under criticism from The Bristol based charity Vegetarians’ International Voice for Animals (Viva), for victimizing the grey squirrel. Nevertheless, there isn’t a squirrel massacre happening in the Forest of Dean, it’s just a few people who want to cook with fresh local ingredients.

An RSPCA spokeswoman said her only concern was over whether the squirrels had been killed humanely.

Interestingly, grey squirrels are already considered to be pests by the Forestry Commission and they are culled to keep the numbers down. This is all part of forest management along with culling the deer and wild boar. It is best practice when carried out correctly. Nevertheless, the squirrels are usually incinerated when they are culled, which seems rather wasteful when they could be eaten instead.

“Chicken of the trees” – what does it taste like?

Well, grey squirrel tastes like a cross between rabbit, duck and chicken and it has a sweet and gamey flavor. There isn’t much meat on them. So, you would need three or four of them if you wanted to make your own burgers. They are also fiddly to butcher and prepare and, ideally, they need to be skinned whilst they are still warm and before rigor mortis sets in. Funnily enough, they smell awful until they are cooked!

Foraging on the rise

There has been a foraging revival in recent years and this is great, because it has increased people’s awareness of wild foods. You can now find items containing ingredients such as wild garlic on supermarket shelves! Generally speaking, people have become more interested in how their food is grown, where it comes from and the environmental and social implications of this.

Slow Food

People are rediscovering the joys of cooking with local seasonal ingredients and ‘growing their own’. Yvette Farrell, owner of Harts Barn Cookery School and Extraordinary Squirrel Burger Challenge judge, is very matter of fact when it comes to eating squirrel meat. One of her pet hates is food waste.

“I grew up with a war time mother, so I was brought up in a house and culture where food didn’t get wasted. Culling the squirrels is just a waste of fresh meat.”

What about the controversy over eating these fluffy woodland creatures? Well, Yvette takes a measured approach to this.

“I’m not advocating hunting, they are a wild animal and there are strict laws governing this.”

So, whilst the thought of eating squirrel could make some people feel squeamish, there are plenty of others who are happy to sample more ‘alternative’ sources of meat. Game is already popular in the UK and there is a growing market for exotic meats such as ostrich, kangaroo and zebra. So, doesn’t it make sense to make use of meat from the UK, which would have otherwise gone into a landfill or get incinerated?

Lawrence Jefferies, chef lecturer at Gloucestershire College believes that squirrel is a perfectly legitimate source of meat and that we could make more use of it.

“In my mind it’s just the same as wild rabbit, which is perfectly acceptable.”

What did people make of the squirrel burgers?

There wasn’t much of an uproar about them at the Forest Showcase Food & Drink Festival, but it was certainly an interesting event and plenty of people were up for tasting some squirrel burger. There’s nothing quite like tasting really fresh wild food. People in the Forest of Dean already eat locally sourced deer and wild boar, not to mention blackberries, sweet chestnut (depending upon weather conditions) and other ingredients they can forage.

It’s no secret that the mass production of food and drink has been partly to blame for a decline in the quality of our food, along with the impact it has upon the environment. Eating meats such as squirrel isn’t a ‘mean’ thing to do. It’s a healthy source of fresh, free range meat and the Forest of Dean has so many of these fluffy tailed chaps that they have become a pest.