Note from Brian, 10 Mar. 2015: I don't know how true claims are about grey squirrels being harmful. If it were the case that grey squirrels increased the suffering of wild animals on balance, that would be a reason to want fewer of them. The main point of this post is that opposing grey squirrels purely on grounds of what's "natural" isn't justified.

by a friend
Published: 23 Oct. 2012

There are few groups in Irish society, save maybe the English, that command more unwarranted vitriol than grey squirrels.

Where does this hatred come from? People usually claim that it is justified because the grey squirrels kill red squirrels. This is not actually true, though they do spread a disease which kills the red squirrels, and they may also out-compete the red squirrels for food.

Red squirrels’ dying of disease and starvation is obviously awful. But why do people get so annoyed about this when in reality these things are nature’s day to day occurrences? Why are they not equally enraged by all starvation, disease, and suffering that happens in the wild?

Instead of people actually being concerned about the well-being of red squirrels I suspect instead their concern comes from a kind of appeal to nature: what is natural is automatically considered morally good.

But why is the red squirrel “natural” and the grey squirrel not? Presumably because they grey is not “native”. How far is this ethic supposed to be taken? How long must a species live here until it is native? Should the entire human species return to Africa because we are an “invasive species” to other countries? Surely not.

Even if it was natural, why would this make it ethical? As J. S. Mill said: “In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature's every-day performances." The wild truly is red in tooth and claw.

Reducing the suffering wild animals suffer is a noble and brilliant goal, but killing grey squirrels is exactly the wrong way to go about it. Maybe things would be better without grey squirrels in Ireland, but a random hatred of them isn't going to do anything. If we are serious about aiding wild animals then the first thing that we should do is to show how the appeal to nature fails.

Due to r-selection, the reproductive strategy of having a huge number of offspring while only a tiny number survive, incredibly large numbers of animals suffer terribly in the wild. There is no reason to consider this suffering any more acceptable than any other suffering that occurs in the world. It is only the difficulty of intervening successfully that should prevent us from taking action. There is nothing magically moral about nature; evolution simply sculpted species the way it did to maximize their reproductive prospects. This is not morality.

It might sound radical, but in the future, with better technology and better understanding of ecosystems, maybe we will be able to aid wild animals in a much bigger way. But there will be no chance of this without people behind it.

As Oscar Horta, a professor of philosophy at University of Santiago de Compostela, and one of the most notable ethicists in the field of ethical intervention in nature writes: “Our job now is to prepare the grounds for forthcoming generations to take action where we may be currently unable to act.”

The red squirrel picture was used with kind permission of Seán Laoide-Kemp.