Of Squirrels, the United Nations and Sun Tzu

Have we failed to learn the lessons of Planet of the Apes, the Maginot Line, and hiding biscuits from toddlers?

Lessons like:

  1. Barriers designed for simpletons, only deter simpletons.
  2. When you make life difficult for aggressors, they become more aggressive. 
  3. When you are militarily or mentally outgunned, your options are to surrender if there is hope for mercy, evacuate where there is none, or die where you stand. 

Which brings me neatly to grey squirrels. They are an invasive species shipped in from the US in the 19th and early 20thcentury. Like other American imports such as base jumping and squeezy cheese, they seemed fun, until we learned how dangerous they are.

So what’s the problem with the blighters? Let me count the ways: they’ve annexed 90% of the UK’s native red squirrels habitat. They chew wires, leave poo in obvious places, leave poo in really hidden indoor places, eat birds eggs, destroy roofing and steal bird food. And, worst of all, they eat all your mother-in-law’s newly-planted bulbs.

For a while I largely spectated as my mother-in-law moved from a Chamberlain-esque state of appeasement, to a Maginot posture, to annoyance. Her early complacency was replaced by a number of attempts to block them from the bird food she puts out daily. We watched, aghast, as the chubby little ninjas lifted the lids off the hanging bird food pods and sat on top, helping themselves. And we were horror-struck to find an entire afternoon’s work planting was uprooted under cover of darkness. As the squirrels warmed to their task, the mood inside the house escalated from annoyance, to a war footing, and finally to high dudgeon. 

And this was where we erred, out of an unforgiveable complacency. We failed to act decisively, but have instead taken only incremental steps, each time believing that surely, the squirrels won’t overcome us now. Initially, mother-in-law shouted at them. They left, but came back 15 seconds later. Then she secured the lids of the bird food pods with wire. They undid the wires. She put Vaseline on the top. They used their noses instead of fingers to prize open the lid. She bought peanut butter for birds in a beaker that screws in horizontally to a plastic flower. They unscrewed the beaker from its holder. 

And finally, in an act of near-maniacal desperation, she sat in a chair on the patio with a copy of the Radio Times, reading and glaring. Oddly, this seemed more effective than the previous methods, presumably because the squirrels realised we were at the ‘take no prisoners’ stage. I assume that was when they evacuated the families and sent back the baggage train.  

Where was I in all this? Like a good UN Ambassador, my first instinct was to see the potent aggression and encourage the victim to step aside. I thought it was cute when they nudged up the lid with their little snouts and held the nuts with their t-rex-like arms. But I didn’t know squirrels could unscrew beakers of peanut butter and carry them away – unless maybe it was the gardener. Then again, he’s French, so I don’t think peanut butter is his thing. Even a peacekeeping force

So I am now researching weaponry with which to arm myself and defend my family. I am happy to report that grey squirrels are legally a pest, and you’re allowed to shoot them with an air rifle. But if you miss and your pellet goes into someone else’s garden, you can be arrested. So I’ll need to work on either brilliant aim or convincing squirrels to stand still long enough for me to shoot them (humanely) in the head. 

Naturally, I turned to legendary Chinese military strategist and contemporary of Confucious: Sun Tzu, and his seminal work, ‘The Art of War’. In that tiny tome I found potentially decisive advice:

“Reduce the hostile chiefs by inflicting damage on them…and keep them constantly engaged. Hold out specious allurements, and make them rush to any given point.”

(I’ve never regarded peanut butter as a specious allurement before, but they would certainly rush to it.)

And yet, as I read on, I came to advice that made me realise the squirrels were way ahead of me:

“…forage on the enemy;” Sun Tzu wrote, “thus the army will have food enough for its needs.”

My heart sank. With all the food that’s gone, the squirrel army must be of epic proportions. Here we are pushing up a row of pawns in a straight line, while the squirrels are out there playing 4D chess. 

Perhaps what worries me most for the world, is the very human assumption of superiority in the face of a more cunning and determined enemy. This was epitomised by my mother-in-law’s words this morning. ‘They seem confused about ownership,’ she said as she exchanged glares with a furry grey monster sitting on the patio table, ‘They seem to think the place belongs to them.’

‘It’s much worse than that,’ I pointed out. ‘They DO own the place. WE’RE the confused ones.’ 


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