Garden pests - Squirrels

grey squirrel on a fence

Squirrels are a common garden pest
Image: KAppleyard/Shutterstock

Fluffy, but frustrating, grey squirrels are notorious pests for gardeners all around the UK. But while they are common, they’re actually an alien species, introduced to the country in the 19th century from North America. Hardy and prolific, they have largely supplanted the native British red squirrel over the years. 

Speaking of which, if your garden is home to red squirrels, it’s best to leave them be due to their relative rarity.

However, there are steps – from providing tasty distractions to restricting access to your prized plants – that you can take to minimise the impact of grey squirrels on your garden.

Why are squirrels a problem in the garden?

grey squirrel in a plant pot

Squirrels can be incredibly damaging to your garden growth
Image: Becky Sheridan/Shutterstock

Squirrels will happily eat their way through your garden, snacking on bulbs, flowers, trees, bird food and more. They’ll even chew wooden decking and garden furniture, given half a chance.

Grey squirrels are also active throughout the year, only staying away on truly cold days. But they can produce two litters a year (usually February and July), meaning that populations can increase significantly if no measures are taken. 

How do I recognise squirrel damage?

Squirrel digging in a hole

Check your beds for obvious signs of digging
Image: Son of Groucho from Scotland CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Grey squirrels are easy to spot scampering about your garden, but you can also tell that they’re running rampant around your garden by the following signs.

  • Damage to lawns and signs of digging in flower beds (they bury a lot of what they forage and they like eating bulbs).
  • Bark stripped off trees. If you see significant signs of this, it might be an indication that the squirrel population is high as bark stripping can be a sign of territorial disputes.
  • Fruits, buds, bulbs, vegetables, and seeds eaten from your garden.
  • Signs of chewing on plastic or wooden outdoor furniture, tools, or decking.

What do squirrels eat?

Squirrels have varied diets and will feed on a wide range of plants, vegetables and fruit, such as strawberries, apples, tulip bulbs and more. They will also strip bark from trees and raid bird feeders for seeds and nuts.

How can I protect my garden and my plants from squirrels?

Domed squirrel-proof bird feeder

Specialist bird feeders keep your feathered friends fed whilst discouraging snacking squirrel
Image: Happy Beaks Squirrel Proof Domed Bird Feeder from Thompson & Morgan

Thanks to their wily, acrobatic antics, squirrels are almost impossible to block from your garden completely. But there are steps you can take to minimise the destruction they wreak.

Feed them – Considering it’s unlikely you’ll be able to block squirrels from your garden, you can distract them from eating the contents of your garden by setting up a separate feeding area. This could be a similar set up to a bird feeder, or you could even consider planting something like a cobnut tree, which will be an irresistible source of food for squirrels.

Protect vulnerable plants and trees – Use netting to protect flower beds after you plant bulbs to stop squirrels digging them up, while an upturned wire hanging basket creates a barrier between squirrels and flower pots. You could also use a tree skirt to protect tree trunks that the furry pests are showing an interest in.

Stop squirrels from eating bird food – Squirrels are attracted to easily accessible food, such as the seeds and nuts you might leave out for the birds. To avoid encouraging the squirrels (while allowing you to keep feeding the birds), try using a squirrel proof feeder. You could also add safflower seeds to the bird mix as squirrels find the bitter taste unpleasant.

Use traps – You can get traps from garden centres if you want to control your garden’s the squirrel population. However, since grey squirrels are an alien species, it’s illegal to release them once they’ve been caught so they must instead be killed humanely. Before taking this step remember that squirrels are fairly prolific and if you dispatch some, others may well just move into claim the now-vacated territory.

Get creative - Don’t be afraid to try out more out-of-the-box ideas. Put a fake owl in the branches of your trees to try and scare the squirrels. Or add prickly prunings (from plants like brambles) to the branches to make access more difficult.

How can I stop squirrels attacking my flower pots?

Try a wire mesh cover on the pots. If they’re digging around, they may have stored food there, or be digging for bulbs. They won’t be able to dig through the mesh, and will become discouraged. Be careful, though - if you have bird feeders or any other easy food source, they’ll just move on to those!

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