For some gardeners, the antics of grey squirrels are a source of entertainment, but for others squirrels are a nuisance, due to their habit of digging up bulbs and raiding bird feeders.
Introduced to the UK from the United States in the 1870s, the grey squirrel is legally classed as an invasive, non-native species and has since expanded its range, displacing our native red squirrel. The adaptability of the non-native squirrel means it’s highly successful at surviving and reproducing in urban environments, which is why we encounter them so frequently.
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Find out how to deal with grey squirrels in the garden, below.
Protect your plants
Protecting planted bulbs from squirrels with a layer of chicken wire
One of the most important things you can do if squirrels are an issue is to protect your plants. Seeds and young plants are particularly vulnerable, as squirrels will nip off soft shoots and dig up and eat seeds. Get around this by protecting young plants by sowing and growing in a greenhouse, propagator or cloche so the squirrels can’t get to them.
Protect bulbs growing in pots by covering them with a layer of chicken wire or metal mesh. You can remove this after the bulbs start producing shoots. Tulips and crocus are particularly vulnerable.
Squirrel-proof your feeders
Squirrel-proof bird feeder with greenfinch
Nutritious bird seed mixes and peanuts are a magnet for grey squirrels. There are a number of ways to deter them, such as buying squirrel-proof bird feeders. These are usually surrounded by a metal cage that birds can get through but prevents squirrel entry, though there are many other designs, too.
Bird feeders on top of metal poles can be greased to prevent squirrels ascending them. Try smearing oil or vaseline on the metal pole to prevent them from gripping it – they’ll soon give up. Remember, squirrels can leap surprising distances, so site feeders and tables away from fences and other high points that make it possible for them to reach their goal. Hanging bird feeders from washing lines or string is often not enough to stop squirrels from reaching feeders – their agility means they have little trouble walking these tightropes.
Use fruit cages
Fruit cage used to protect crops
Larger areas, particularly those used for growing tasty fruits and veg can be protected with the help of a fruit cage. Use a metal mesh to form the cage, as squirrels can nibble through plastic meshes, and non-metal meshes can act as nets that birds and other wildlife get tangled in. Fruit cages can be as big as you need them – some are waist height and others tall enough for you to stand in. You can also buy smaller cloches and tunnels to protect your crops from squirrels.
Grow food plants
Cobnut tree, Corylus maxima
Squirrels have a number of favourite food plants that, if grown, may distract their attention from your plants. Cobnuts and hazelnuts (Corylus) are a particular favourite and will provide a bounty of nuts for them to feast on. Keep in mind that they may be looking to bury or ‘cache’ these nuts, so they may dig up bulbs or other plants growing nearby in the process. If you do plant a hazel or other food plant for squirrels, it’s best sited away from the most cultivated areas of your garden.
You could even go a step further and avoid buying bird seeds and feeds altogether, or at least in smaller amounts, by growing plants that provide seeds and berries for birds – hawthorn, holly, ivy and crab apples are some of the best.
Frighten them off
Decoy owl for scaring off squirrels
You can use a number of visual deterrents to scare off squirrels. Some gardeners have turned to artificial decoy birds of prey such as owls and falcons placed in a tree or other spot to fool squirrels. They can eventually become used to the presence of the decoy figure, so you may have to move it to a different area of the garden every so often.
Watch out for breakable containers
Terracotta container planted with pansies and Argyranthemum ‘Madeira’
In their quest for food, squirrels can knock over containers, which is particularly annoying if the containers are breakable and placed off the ground. Avoid any breakages by siting only the heaviest, unshakeable containers off the ground, as smaller ones are more likely to be pushed aside and broken.