Grey squirrels

The grey squirrel is a common mammal that in gardens can both delight by its acrobatic movements and annoy by damaging trees, feeding on flower buds, bulbs, fruits and vegetables.

Grey squirrel. Image: ©www.gardenworldimages.com

Grey squirrel. Image: ©www.gardenworldimages.com

Quick facts

Common name: Grey squirrel
Scientific name: Sciurus carolinensis
Plants affected: Many ornamental plants, fruits and vegetables
Main symptoms: Strips bark from trees, eats flower buds, bulbs, corms, seeds, ripening fruits and vegetables
Most active: Year round

What are grey squirrels?

Grey squirrels often enter gardens from adjacent woodlands or other areas with trees and shrubs.

They can feed on or damage a wide range of ornamental plants, fruits and vegetables. Particular favourites are tulip bulbs, crocus corms, sweetcorn, strawberries, apples, pears, nuts, sunflower seed heads and flower buds of camellias and magnolias. Trees, including sycamore, maples, ash and beech, can be badly damaged or even killed by bark stripping. Grey squirrels will also take feed from birds feeders. 

Symptoms

Grey squirrels are usually easily spotted. Some of the signs they have been present can include:

  • Eating fruits, nuts, seeds, flower buds and vegetables
  • Digging up and eating bulbs and corms
  • Raiding bird feeders and occasionally taking eggs from birds’ nests
  • Damage to lawns by burying or digging up food stores
  • Strip bark off trees, especially sycamore, maples, ash and beech
  • Gnawing on plastic, such as hosepipes, plant labels and plastic netting

Control

It is not possible to stop squirrels from entering a garden and it is usually necessary to accept their presence or even appreciate their acrobatic antics. There are steps that can be taken to reduce the damage they cause. Additional information on living with grey squirrels can be downloaded from the RSPCA.

Netting can give protection to fruits and shrubs when squirrels are showing interest in them. Wire netting is best used for permanent structures such as fruit cages, as squirrels can quite easily bite through plastic. 

Netting can be placed over areas where bulbs and corms have been planted, to deter squirrels from digging them up. Alternatively groups of bulbs can be placed inside a planting basket designed for aquatic plants and the top covered with chicken wire. This can be sunk into the ground at the correct depth for the bulbs. Bulbs in pots can be protected with wire netting. Usually once bulbs have started growing, they become less attractive to squirrels and the barriers can be removed.

Various designs of squirrel-proof bird feeders and tables are available from garden centres. These usually enclose the food dispenser in a stout wire cage that allows birds access while excluding squirrels. However, it may be found that birds also visit these feeders less frequently. 

Animal repellent substances and scaring devices are likely to give no more than short-term protection.

It is permissible to attempt to control grey squirrels by rapping, provided this is done in a humane manner. Shooting is rarely feasible in gardens for legal and safety reasons.

Traps are available from some garden centres or mail order companies. The most widely used is a cage-type trap that will capture squirrels alive. Such traps can be baited with peanuts, they must be checked at least once every 24 hours and preferably morning and evening. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act it is illegal to release non-indigenous animals into the wild, so any grey squirrels caught should be killed. Methods considered to be within animal welfare law include shooting or allowing the squirrel to escape into a sack, where it can be held while a sharp blow is delivered to its head. Drowning squirrels is not a humane method of dispatching any animal and is illegal.

Unfortunately, more squirrels are likely to move in to occupy the vacated territory, so a garden is unlikely to be squirrel-free for long.

Biology

The grey squirrel originates from North America and was introduced into Britain during the 19th century. It is now found throughout most of Britain and has largely replaced the native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). The decline of the red squirrel has been mostly caused by habitat changes and endemic diseases. The presence of the more competitive grey squirrel then hampers population recovery or the red squirrel.  With the exception of some areas of Italy, the grey squirrel is not found in Europe outside of Britain and Ireland.

Both species of squirrel can cause damage in gardens. However, if the red squirrel is seen in gardens it should be tolerated and appreciated due to its rarity. The red squirrel has the highest level of protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Grey squirrels can produce two litters a year, which are raised in nest-like structures called dreys. Litters are generally produced in February and July; a typical litter size is three or four. Grey squirrels are active throughout the year on all but the coldest days.

Most bark stripping appears to be associated with stress brought on by territorial disputes with other squirrels. It is more likely to happen when squirrel numbers are high and there is increased competition for territories.

Like all animals squirrels can suffer a variety of diseases, if you find a dead or dying squirrels you can report it on the Garden Wildlife Health website.

Image: © GWI/Dave Bevan. Available in high resolution at www.gardenworldimages.com


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