Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:30 pm on 23 March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Conservative 12:30, 23 March 2006

My Lords, as some of your Lordships may know, I have a longstanding interest in the predicament of the red squirrel and the plight that it appears to be facing. Indeed, I instituted a debate in this House in 1998 to which the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, responded so nicely. Therefore, I very much welcome the debate that we are having this afternoon and congratulate my noble friend Lord Peel on instigating it. I should also explain to the House that I am patron of Red Alert North West and I live on the front line between the reds and the greys.

At the conclusion of the 1998 debate, I must confess that I felt depressed. I feel even more depressed now. I recognise that manful efforts have been made by all kinds of people, and I should like to put on record three without necessarily doing so in a way that excludes credit to others—to Red Alert North West, to the Forestry Commission, particularly Keith Jones, and to the European Squirrel Initiative.

The fundamental issue that we are talking about goes back to the fact that when red squirrels and grey squirrels come into contact with each other, the reds are eliminated. Looking back, I believe that we have spent far too much time trying to work out precisely why that happens, and we have not been prepared to accept the evidence of our eyes as truth. I happen to think that squirrel pox is the principal cause of the problem, which seems to have many characteristics akin to avian flu as far as squirrels are concerned. We have been far too intellectual about this and tried to be far too clever. If the priority is biodiversity, it follows as night follows day that you have to keep red squirrels and grey squirrels apart. The evidence is clear on how to do that. There has to be at least some killing of grey squirrels. You do not have to be a Machiavelli, Bismarck or Clausewitz to know that, in politics, if you wish the ends of a policy, you have to wish the means to put it into effect. Collectively, we in this country have not grasped that point. We have not been prepared to do so. As my noble friend Lord Plumb pointed out, that has been apparent for many years. And he gave an example.

It so happens that, not all that long ago, I was reading a book entitled Green Thoughts, published in 1952, by a now almost completely forgotten figure, Sir Stephen Tallents. The book contains a short chapter about grey squirrels in which he quotes the policy of the then Ministry of Agriculture. The policy was that,

"the importance of adopting concerted action for the destruction of grey squirrels cannot be overemphasized".

He continued by lamenting the inadequacy of policies to implement that.

Governments in this country of all political persuasions—and I refer as much to the government of the party to which I belong and of which I had the good fortune to be a Member—have been characterised by squeamishness. As far as the red squirrel is concerned, squeamishness spells nemesis for this lovely and iconic creature. Those involved with trying to preserve the red squirrel in this country have adopted a policy of appeasement towards the greys. The red squirrels have had Chamberlains and not Churchills but it is Churchills that they need.

When Sir Stephen Tallents was writing the piece at his house in Kent, he saw a squirrel and some of its confreres through the window. So what happened next? In his words, "the animal was shot". I dare say that some of your Lordships will think that Sir Stephen Tallents was a kind of bucolic baronet straight out of the pages of Fielding. No, Sir Stephen George Tallents, 1884 to 1958, merits three pages in the Dictionary of National Biography. He was a civil servant and public relations expert, for a time in 1919 British Commissioner for the Baltic provinces. He helped draw up the treaty that established Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He was secretary to the last Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland and the first Controller of Public Relations at the BBC under Lord Reith. He was no Tony Lumpkin. As we live in an era when transparency is the order of the day and is a contemporary buzzword in politics, I ought also to explain that he is my wife's grandfather. I have been assured by my mother-in-law that, had he been a Member of your Lordships' House—and I suspect he might have been rather a good candidate—he would certainly not have sat on these Benches.

What did Sir Stephen do? In his own words:

"As I skinned it, I seemed to remember that in America squirrel, fried or stewed was a favoured dish. So next morning I rang up the Natural History Museum to inquire if I could safely eat my grey squirrel's remains. The Museum was courteous but diffident, and promised to ring up the Zoo. The Zoo, I learned, was encouraging but could not speak from first-hand knowledge. I wavered, but a man on my homeward train told me of a lady who in those wartime days was feeding boiled grey squirrel to her dogs. That was good enough to me".

If we mean to save red squirrels, it is no good extrapolating past policies, wringing our hands and expressing platitudes any more than it was in Sir Stephen's day. We have to be imaginative, radical and think out of the box. For a start, why do we not take a leaf out of Sir Stephen's book and follow the example of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and promote the animal as food? After all, it can be done in the interests of forestry, conservation and as part of a programme of diversifying the rural economy. As has been explained, greys do millions of pounds worth of damage to trees. They are driving the reds helter-skelter to oblivion and destruction, and the Government are encouraging shooting to diversify the economic base of the rural economy. That approach gives the Government the chance of achieving several disparate policy aims at one and the same time.

Squirrels are said to be good to eat. Sir Stephen wrote that, in Connecticut, the great chef Brillat-Savarin created a banquet,

"of grey squirrels stewed in Madeira, together with partridge wings en papillote and roast turkey".

The LL Bean Game and Fish Cookbook says:

"I believe, squirrel meat is the most delicious of all small game meats. Chicken-fried young squirrel is better than rabbit or chicken, two of my favorite meats; in addition, the squirrel lends itself to most savory stews and braises".

There are then 10 pages of specific recipes.

I am sure that the obesity tsar would be only too over-excited to support this good healthy initiative. What about celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver promoting it for school dinners? Indeed, the House authorities could put it on the menu here. My father was a Member of the other place shortly after the war. When he and some of his friends were dining in the Members' Dining Room, they found black partridge on the menu. They knew a little about birds and none of them could find in their memory any recollection of black partridge. Nor could they find it in the bird books that they consulted. After some investigation, it turned out to be young rook. So there is certainly precedent here for that kind of thing.

Despite standing here promoting it, I must confess that I have never actually eaten a grey squirrel—I do not know whether any other noble Lord has. Perhaps it will suggest that I suffer from one of the worst characteristics of those in public life today. However, I am prepared to give it a go. I invite each and every Member of the government Front-Bench Defra team to the hotel in the Lake District where I am a director—and which has, I hasten to add, one AA rosette for fine food—to dine on grey squirrels to launch an "Eat a grey to save a red" campaign.

I will feel very let down and be very sceptical of the Government's true intentions on biodiversity if, on the advice of some politically correct adviser, the invitation is refused. After all, let us not forget that many of the things we eat as a matter of course are entirely lovable and pretty creatures which appeal to the wider world. What is the difference? Perhaps more importantly, I am not the only one who will feel let down—the red squirrels will too. As I have already said, unless something radical and imaginative is done—and an extrapolation of what we are doing now does not amount to that—Squirrel Nutkin and his friends and relations are "going to be toast".


M Bee
Posted on 15 Apr 2006 4:37 pm (Report this annotation)

Eating squirrel...by choice! How low can humans go?

Next I'll by hearing some eighty year old woman celebrated her birthday with swan on the menu - very sad.