Grey squirrels carry a disease called Parapoxvirus which does not affect their health but can be fatal to red squirrels. They are also much larger than red squirrels which means they eat more and will happily feed on green acorns so will decimate them before they ripen, and red squirrels can eat them.
The population of red squirrels has also been affected by habitat loss, in particularly the destruction of woodland, whereas grey squirrels have a wider range including parks and gardens.
Grey squirrels can also cause other problems. They strip bark from the base of trees which causes them to weaken and eventually die, a practice that has damaged natural woodland and has had an impact on the forestry industry. They take eggs and chicks which can be devastating for songbirds and ground-nesting birds, although not on the same scale as domestic and feral cats. And they have been known to damage houses and buildings by gnawing through woodwork and electrical wires.
Are grey squirrels protected?
Grey squirrels have limited legal protection and as the law stands it is perfectly legal to kill grey squirrels as long it is done in a humane manner. Despite this, the Wildlife Act 2006 states that it is against the law to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal under your care.
This means that you can’t kill an animal by methods such as drowning, suffocating, or beating it to death, but you could trap a grey squirrel and then kill it with a single blow to the head.
However, the RSPCA says that most people would be incapable of killing an animal without causing it to suffer and therefore you would be in breach of the law if you tried to do so. There have been a number of cases where people have been fined for killing grey squirrels they have trapped in their gardens.
It is also illegal to release grey squirrels into the wild or to keep a grey squirrel in captivity under section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), so if you do trap a grey squirrel you should take it to a vet or the RSPCA to dispose of it humanely. To try and control the population the law has been extended further and since 2019, it has been illegal for wildlife rehabilitation centres to release grey squirrels so many have stopped taking sick and injured grey squirrels at all.
Red squirrels on the other hand, are legally protected, and it is an offence to intentionally kill, injure, or capture a red squirrel or damage any structures they use for shelter.
How can I stop squirrels taking my bird food?
Although it can be incredibly frustrating to have squirrels take the food you put out for birds there are a number of things you can do to try and prevent them doing so before resorting to pest control.
Invest in a specially designed squirrel proof bird feeder, or one that has small mesh holes so that squirrels and larger birds cannot easily get to the food. Don’t put out food on the ground or on bird tables, which will not only attract squirrels but also vermin and other pests.
You could also try adding cayenne pepper to the food you offer to the birds that visit your garden or use a specially formulated squirrel repellent spray. We have a number of other tips to prevent squirrels stealing your bird food and we recommend that you try these rather than killing them.