Squirrels are a familiar sight in gardens across Britain, often paying a visit in search of food. But have you had experiences of these little mammals depleting the food you put out to attract wild birds? Read on for advice on how to prevent squirrels eating bird food in your garden.
The story of squirrels
With autumn in the air, the garden is rich with the fiery hues of the seasonal foliage. The hedges are full of berries and nuts and local squirrels are taking the opportunity to hoard whatever food they can, to see them through the winter months when food is scarce.
Squirrels are a clever bunch, with grey squirrels, in particular, being agile, intelligent and canny. A successful species, this mammal meets with mixed feelings with gardeners. While some gardeners are impressed with their adaptability and acrobatics, others dislike them and want to prevent squirrels from eating bird food and wolfing down fat balls in little time.
It’s not just bird food that squirrels are reported to feed on either; they have a habit of digging up flower bulbs too. Daffodil and tulip bulbs are high in energy and starch which squirrels can get a good meal out of. Good for their survival rates but not so good for gardeners looking forward to next year’s spring displays!
Where did grey squirrels come from?
The grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was introduced to the UK in the 1800s from the United States after the owners of big estates wanted to show off the latest, fashionable and exotic animal on their land.
Larger than the UK native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) and twice as heavy, it didn’t take long before the grey squirrel dominated the niche that native red squirrels enjoyed for centuries.
Grey squirrels are now wide-spread in the UK whereas red squirrels occur only in isolated pockets of the UK including the island of Anglesey, the Isle of Wight, the Scottish Highlands and parts of Northern Ireland.
It’s not all bad…
While grey squirrels have a penchant for bird food and flower bulbs, these omnivorous mammals will get their protein sources from insects including plant-munching caterpillars and slugs – much to the good news of gardeners, especially in the springtime.
Grey squirrels are entertaining too; there’s a lot of footage of these intrepid mammals succeeding even the most elaborate of assault courses to get to a food source. Their skills are admittedly admirable.
Is there any way of deterring squirrels without hurting them?
Yes. You can put out food on a feeding station that birds enjoy, yet squirrels can’t tolerate. Peckish Squirrel Proof Suet Cakes for example contains chilli – a squirrel-proof ingredient. The chilli goes undetected by birds, as they can't taste heat. But it is too hot for squirrels, meaning they stay away, which in turn frees the bird station for the feathered favourites you want to see in your garden.
High in energy, this bird food is great for garden birds in a cold winter or during the breeding season when parent birds need to keep their energy levels up, searching for food all day long to give their young.
I don’t mind seeing squirrels in the garden. But how can I keep the squirrels separate and stop them eating bird food?
So what if you want to prevent squirrels from eating bird food, but you don’t want to discourage them completely? There are methods to keep all the wildlife in your garden happy and living harmoniously. Grey squirrels need not rule the roost in your garden, keeping small birds away; you simply need to feed them separately so they have their own food supply, kept away from bird feeding stations.
If you want to care for and protect grey squirrels we recommend that you feed them with their own feeders and with a feed suitable for squirrels. Look at setting-up squirrel stations at least 10m away from bird stations to keep the species segregated.
And how do I keep the squirrels off my newly-planted spring bulbs?
There are plenty of grates that you can purchase to put over containers that keep squirrels from helping themselves to your ornamental bulbs. We recommend that you choose a grate with 1cm or less (½ inch) squares. Once your bulbs start to shoot from mid-winter you can then take off the grates if you wish.