“YOU’RE not squeamish are you?”, Paul Parker asks me when I ring to arrange a rendezvous.
Next day, as he opens the back doors of his pest control van, that question quickly makes sense.
Out flop several bushy tails attached to several stiff grey squirrels.
But this isn’t as bad as it gets . . . little do I know that, by the end of the day, the photographer and I will be munching one of them.
Paul is The Verminator. Decked out in camouflage kit, his .22 rifle slung over his shoulder, he’s an assassin, hell bent on the extermination of that foreign invader — the grey squirrel — and the preservation of our native red.
he pest controller is Lord Rupert Redesdale’s right-hand man and together they form the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, one of a plethora of squirrel saving societies across the North East and Cumbria.
But while some groups are reticent about using the “c” word, culling is what the RSPP claims to do best.
Although their figures are considered by some to be grossly exaggerated — squirrel conservation is nothing if not political — the RSPP say they’ve slaughtered more than 20,000 grey squirrels in the past 18 months, virtually clearing the whole of Northumberland and, according to Lord Redesdale, pushing back the advance of the greys by 10 years. “Red squirrels are magical, mystical little things,” Paul tells me as we check traps in an oak copse in Riding Mill.
“They’re totally different to the greys. Every one is unique. They’re like the Beatrix Potter characters.”
Their North American grey cousins, imported into the UK over 150 years ago, get no sympathy from Paul who puts them in the same category as “long tails” or “tin hats”, he’s a superstitious man who won’t say the word “rat”.
“They are just vermin with a big bushy tale,” he says, “the animal equivalent of hoodies. People don’t understand that they eat songbirds’ eggs and let’s talk about our ancient woodland that they’re wrecking.”
It is not just the squirrel pox, a virus carried by the greys who are immune, that is responsible for the red’s demise, it is the fact that the greys can out-compete them in other ways.
“Greys will eat anything,” Paul says. “I’ve caught them with mince pies, jelly babies, honey and even liquorice allsorts.”
The traps he’s checking today are laced with beef.
He says: “I’m always trying to get the edge on them,” with a glint in his eye. “When I started laying traps in this wood 18 months ago we were getting seven to eight every day. Today, as you can see, there’s nothing.”
You gotta go read the rest, especially about the little old ladies with elephant guns. I swear, this makes me smile so wide I think my face will break in two. These salty Brits GET IT.