Ffrom birth control pills to proposals to modify their DNA, efforts to control the UK’s invasive population of gray squirrels have become increasingly elaborate. But a growing number of chefs and conservationists have a much simpler idea, which they see as part of the ethical restaurant trend: eat them.
“My initial starting point with gray squirrel was taste. But it’s also good for the environment,” says Paul Wedgwood, one of Scotland’s top chefs, whose restaurant on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile has been offering gray squirrel on the menu since 2008. Wedgwood has even made haggis from the North American rodent that has driven local people to extinction from the native red in much of England and Wales.
“It’s soft, nutty and a bit gamey. It’s just a really good flavor, and it’s easy to match. Anyone who does rabbits could easily switch squirrels,” he says.
Wedgwood isn’t alone among chefs putting invasive species on the menu. At Dai Due restaurant in Austin, Texas, owner and chef Jesse Griffiths encourages Americans to hunt and eat more of the millions of feral pigs that cause billions of dollars in damage to farmland. In the Bahamas, star chef José Andrés serves up invasive lionfish to help protect Caribbean reefs. At Fallow in London, chefs plan to cook king crab, the latest to arrive on British shores that has sparked fears for native brown crab and scallop populations.
The concept of “invasiveness” was developed more than two decades ago by Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont. “With this idea, humans are a form of biological control. Humans are incredible predators: whether it’s eating the gray squirrel in Britain or the European green crab in the US, we know their consumption can impact populations,” he says. .
The spread of invasive species is among the main drivers of extinctions and biodiversity loss on Earth, according to leading scientists. Not all non-native organisms become invasive, but those that spread rapidly and outcompete native fauna, often due to lack of predators, causing financial and ecological damage. Examples include mice on Gough Island in the South Atlantic where rodents eat albatross chicks in their nests, and the Burmese python in the Florida Everglades, which has devastated mammal populations. Invasive species are also costly: a study from Queen’s University Belfast revealed this week that they have caused £878billion in damage worldwide since the 1960s, a bill set to soar this century .
Roman runs the EatTheInvaders.org website, hosting recipes for invasive species in the United States, including the green iguana, wakame seaweed, and nutria or nutria – a river rat.
“We have to say from the start that the goal is to reduce these populations, not to create a market for them. We don’t want people to say “wow, this crawfish is really good”. I wish we had it in this river system or something,” Roman says. “In the era of globalization, we are constantly moving animals, plants and fungi that have ecological impacts. We try to work against that.
Critics are wary of the effectiveness of invasiveness in achieving its goals, with evidence that the “eat ’em to beat ’em” approach may have the opposite effect for some species. A 2020 paper on capturing invasive signal crayfish populations in North Yorkshire, where Britain’s only native crayfish is hunted, found the traps were likely ineffective and helping to spread the crayfish. Although crayfish are promoted by chefs including Gordon Ramsay, the report found that less than 2.5% of invasive crayfish were large enough to be caught in traditional traps, potentially harming other creatures.
Then there is the question of scale. The Wild Meat Company, which sells game from Suffolk, England, sold around 10,000 gray squirrels last year, barely enough to reduce the UK’s population of 2.7million.
In the United States, a 2014 study found that while eating invasive species can reduce populations and raise public awareness, it could inadvertently discourage their eradication. It offered an 11-point strategy for using invasiveness effectively, as well as respecting local species harvesting laws, which differ around the world.
While proponents acknowledge that it’s not possible to turn all invasive flora and fauna into gourmet foods, they say taste is the key to success.
At Miya’s, a sustainable sushi restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut, chef Bun Lai developed a menu dedicated to invasive species and won the 2016 White House Champions of Change award for his sustainable food.
“If we ate invasive animals like wild boar and nutria instead of cows, we would have a significant impact on climate change because of their greenhouse gas emissions,” says Lai, who now manages pop- sustainable sushi ups after the restaurant closes in 2021.
“From the swamp rodent called nutria to the python, poisonous toad and a plethora of invasive plants, I have hunted, fished and foraged for many invasive species. People’s tastes are constantly changing,” he says. “In my sets of sushi for decades I included unconventional ingredients Rather than tuna, farmed salmon, eel and yellowtail, I would use invasive carp with black soldier fly larvae , invasive blue catfish, invasive lionfish, edible weeds, invasive plants and organic vegetables and fruits For years people told me every day that the sushi I made was not sushi, but over time it has become more accepted.
In the UK, time will tell if Japanese knotweed vodka and muntjac deer burgers will be part of the measures to limit invasive species. Not all invasive animals are considered game and therefore the public is not free to shoot, trap and consume all invasive species. But for Scottish foodies, the gray squirrel, which is legal to humanely kill, is already a favorite.
“The demand is there from customers,” says Wedgwood. “I brought in a guy from Switzerland who ordered a squirrel tasting menu. A six-course menu… with nothing but squirrel!
Rack of squirrel, candied jersey royal potatoes, mashed carrots, wild garlic
Recipe by Paul Wedgwood. For 2
2 squirrel racks – room temperature
2 royal jersey potatoes
1 clove of garlic
1 sprig of rosemary
500ml goose fat
1 large carrot
50g of butter, cut into small pieces
2 wild garlic leaves
Salt and pepper
Peel the potatoes and brown them gently in a little goose fat to color them. Transfer to a small saucepan, add the garlic and rosemary and enough goose fat to cover the potatoes. Place over medium heat. Bring the fat to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 30 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and cooked through.
Peel the carrot and cut it. Put in a small saucepan with a little salt and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until the carrot is tender. Drain and reserve the cooking juices. Using a hand blender, blend the carrot with the diced butter and season with salt and white pepper. Adjust the consistency if necessary with the cooking juices and leave warm.
Mix the wild garlic with the oil and pass through a fine sieve.
In a small frying pan, take two spoonfuls of fat from the potato confit and heat until it begins to smoke. Lower the heat slightly and gently add the squirrel squares and baste for about two minutes. Remove the grates from the pan, season with salt and pepper and leave warm.
Pour a spoonful of mashed carrots onto a plate, degrease the potatoes and place them for a few seconds on an absorbent cloth. Season with salt, then add to the plate. Place the rack of squirrel on top and drizzle with wild garlic oil.