Gloucestershire

Grey squirrel the focus of festival burger-making contest

Grey squirrel Image copyright colinvarndell/naturepl.com
Image caption The grey squirrel was introduced to the UK from the USA in the late 19th Century

To its animal-loving admirers the grey squirrel is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed friend - although others see the "nuisance" creature at its best when minced and served in a bun.

The "free range chicken of the trees" is the main talking point of a food festival in Gloucestershire this weekend which is staging a cookery competition to create a healthy squirrel burger recipe, in a bid to put the meat on the British menu.

In the UK, the demand for kangaroo, ostrich, camel and other exotic meats is on the rise, but the British have so far shown little appetite for eating an animal that has been in plentiful supply on these shores since its arrival in the UK from North America about a century ago.

The recent suggestion that carnivorous Brits should put Dartmoor hill pony sausages on their plates was met with a welter of criticism.

And a north London grocery store was accused of committing "wildlife massacre" when it put squirrel meat on the shelves.

But, undeterred, the Forest Showcase Food and Drink Festival, near Coleford, is setting the challenge of creating a squirrel burger with the "taste of the Forest of Dean".

'Fiddly to prepare'

Lawrence Jefferies, a catering lecturer at Gloucestershire College, said it takes at least three grey squirrels to make a basic quarter-pounder.

"It's a rabbit sort of chicken flavour," said Mr Jefferies, who is one of the competition judges who will be putting the results to the taste test.

"It's not strong and it's not gamey as such but it will be tough so to mince it up and put it into a burger is probably quite a good thing."

Image copyright Forest Showcase Food and Drink Festival
Image caption It takes at least three grey squirrels to make a basic quarter-pounder

Made out of locally sourced squirrel, it will be the first time the alternative burger will take its place alongside the usual array of artisan cheeses, locally-brewed beer and homemade cakes at the festival.

"It's quite fiddly to prepare and there's not a huge amount of meat on it but there's plenty of them," said Mr Jefferies.

"It is obviously a nuisance within the Forest of Dean and it does a lot of damage and there's nothing wrong with eating it."

Squirrel 'smear campaign'

Introduced to the UK in the late 19th Century, the grey squirrel is unpopular with some people for its habit of stripping the bark off trees and the threat it poses to native birds.

And it will never be forgiven by some for its displacement of the native red squirrel.

With upwards of 100,000 greys estimated to be roaming the Forest of Dean in 2005, the Forestry Commission has admitted the "huge population" is "extremely destructive".

"Grey squirrels do cause considerable damage to the trees through extensive bark stripping," a spokeswoman said.

"But at present the Forestry Commission don't manage squirrels on their land."

However, for Bristol based charity Vegetarians' International Voice for Animals (Viva!) the victimisation of grey squirrels is "totally misguided".

"This smear campaign against the grey squirrel reeks of both cruelty and irony," said Justin Kerswell.

"Red squirrels themselves have previously been tarred as pests and killed in huge numbers. Favouring and massacring different species of wildlife continues to be a brutal fashion which cannot carry on."

The RSPCA, however, said it was most concerned about "how the squirrel was killed".

"We would hope that these particular squirrels had been killed humanely," a spokeswoman said.

'Nice cheeseburger'

"We would also be concerned about ordinary members of the public possibly trying to capture and/or kill grey squirrels and would not advocate this."

And so with a clear abundance of what festival organisers describe as the "free range chicken of the tree", is it a source of meat that should be served up more frequently?

Mr Jefferies believes so.

"It is a creature with a fluffy tail and some people would take offence at its use for food but to my mind it's just the same as a wild rabbit, which is perfectly acceptable," he said.

"They are a pest, they are in abundance and there is a food source to be had there. And I think it might make a nice cheeseburger."

Image copyright Adrian Brooks / Imagewise
Image caption Top Chef Pascal Aussignac will be championing squirrel at this year's Taste of London Winter as part of their Forgotten Foods theme

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