Eat Them to Beat Them: Invasive Species

by Robert Gooch March 29 2022

Invasive non-native species have a huge impact on the UK’s ecosystems and conservationists are working tirelessly to eradicate them. What can you do to help? Put the tastiest on your menu!

Grey squirrel

Photo © Andy Willis on Unsplash

The worst offenders

There are many non-native species in Great Britain, but only a small proportion are invasive, says the Non-native Species Secretariat (NNSS), which is responsible for helping to coordinate the country’s approach to managing them. An introduced species is only classed as invasive when its spread or population growth causes damage to the environment, the economy, our health and the way we live.

The invasive species currently causing most concern include:

  • Japanese knotweed, which was introduced by the Victorians as an ornamental garden plant – and now costs the economy £166 million a year. As well as damaging property, it poses a major threat to biodiversity and natural ecosystems by shading other plants and releasing a chemical substance that inhibits their growth.
  • Signal crayfish, which were brought here from America to be farmed for food in 1975. Those that escaped quickly colonised British streams, driving the white-clawed crayfish towards extinction. Not only does it out-compete our native crayfish, but it also carries and transmits a crayfish plague that doesn’t harm itself but which is fatal to the white-clawed crayfish. It also burrows into riverbanks, causing great damage.
  • Muntjac, which were brought over from China and Taiwan in the 19th century by collectors, including the 11th Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey. When they escaped, they quickly gained a stronghold in the Southeast England causing widespread damage to trees, shrubs and other wildlife, including butterflies and birds. The clearing of woodland understory by muntjac has been linked to declines in species such as nightingales.
  • Grey squirrel, which were also brought to the UK by collectors in the 19th century. In fact, the same duke that imported muntjac is thought to be responsible for the grey squirrel’s population explosion. There are now thought to be more than 2.5 million grey squirrel across the UK and only 10,000 -15,000 remaining native reds. One of the main factors behind their devastating decline was the squirrel pox carried by grey squirrels, to which red squirrels have no immunity.

Menu choices

It’s vital that all of these invasive species are managed to protect our delicate ecosystems. But when all of us are being called upon to eat more sustainably, why let them go to waste? All of the above species can be cooked into very tasty meals! In fact, the trend to eat invasive species is becoming so popular that there’s now even a term for it: invasivorism.

Eating the house and river invaders

Japanese knotweed has a clean tartness that’s very similar to rhubarb, says ethnobotanist James Wong. If you’re in the process of trying to eradicate it from your property or you know someone who is, make sure you give it a try. Pick yourself some fresh young shoots and a get yourself a copy of Rachel Lambert’s cookbook Wild and Sweet to try her knotweed jam and knotweed frangipane tart.

Signal crayfish makes for a superb meal. However, you’ll need a license from the Environmental Agency and the correct equipment that meets the Environmental Agency’s strict requirements to catch them.

hands holding a crayfish

Photo © Alyona Bogomolova on Unsplash

Mouthwatering muntjac

Photo by Amee Fairbank-Brown on Unsplash

Don’t want to have to catch your invasive species yourself? Why not try muntjac! Alex James is a huge fan of muntjac’s great flavour, writing, “The meat probably tastes so good because muntjac are selective feeders, nibbling at small morsels of a wide variety of plants. The feral ones get the pick of the very best forage going. People just don't realise how delicious they are.”

Our whole skinned muntjacs feed between 10 and 16 and are superb cooked on a spit or ‘ASADO’ style in the South American way over the hot grills from an open fire. Or opt for your whole muntjac to be jointed into primals to roast or barbecue in smaller portions and freeze the rest for other days.

If you want a really easy option, you could also add some of Truly Traceable’s venison pies to your next order. All the muntjac in Truly Traceable’s pastries is shot by Steve Tricker as part of his deer management work. His wife Lynn Tricker then transforms the meat into her hugely popular pies and sausage rolls. Enjoy a red wine & venison pie with mash and greens for Sunday lunch or a hearty supper. Or bake a batch of their merguez muntjac sausage rolls for a tasty and sustainable picnic!

Savouring squirrel

Our ready-to-cook squirrel makes it easy to reduce the number of grey squirrel in the UK. The delights of squirrel meat have been highlighted in articles in the Guardian and The Times the following month, and over the past few years Native’s Ivan Tisdall-Downes, the Cinnamon Club’s Vivek Singh and Marco Pierre White have advocated tucking into it. George Monbiot is even a firm fan, as FarmingUK discussed in an article which included a long quote from Monbiot as well as discussion about our strong sales of ready-to-cook squirrels...

“If some of the millions of grey squirrels killed every year in this country were sold for meat, it would be no bad thing. Perhaps if we engaged more with the natural world and developed a better understanding of our evolutionary history and our psychological place within it, we might spend more time thinking about what we eat.”

Squirrel kofte from Silo London

Pioneering chef Douglas McMaster, who founded Silo London, the world’s first zero waste restaurant, is the latest chef to amaze diners with how exceptional squirrel in expert hands. McMaster held an invasive species dinner at his restaurant in April 2022. The menu included Japanese knotweed, American signal crayfish and our very own Suffolk grey squirrel. "Invasive species are the future of food", he said – and we wholeheartedly agree. If you’re still in any doubt, head to our Instagram page to check out the delicious squirrel koftas (pictured right) created by Silo's brilliant head chef, Brendan. And keep an eye out for their next event!

Need some ideas for how to cook your muntjac or squirrel when you receive it? Visit our recipes collection for cooking ideas or read our blog for tips and cooking suggestions.