The sign in the Scottish butcher shop took Allison Dube by surprise. "Eat a Gray, Save a Red", it stated, referring to a desperate scheme to help Great Britain's European red squirrels in their failing war with invading American cousins.
Nothing, said Dube, better registered the difference between the European and North American attitudes towards wildlife than that sign and what it represented.
Dube, who grew up on the Eastern Shore and for several years was a key employee at Hope for Wildlife's rescue and rehabilitation center in Seaforth, has lived in Scotland for the past year. She says its hard for a Nova Scotian not to notice that markets in her town near Edinburgh are encouraging locals to eat squirrels.
"I've seen grey squirrel at the market and I've seen signs with the slogan. They're very smitten with their red squirrels here and trying to protect them," she said during a recent visit home.
The arrival and spread of the American gray squirrel has driven the red to extinction in much of the British Isles over about 100 years. Not only is it larger and more aggressive, dominating all conflicts for food and territory, the gray also carried a deadly squirrel pox virus that the European animals have no resistance to. First imported as novelties in the late 1800s, the grays have established breeding populations in several mainland European countries and are considered a high-risk invasive alien species that could potentially destroy red squirrels throughout the continent.
The "eat a gray" campaign was started, complete with recipes and cookbooks, in southern England, but failed to save the population of reds there. The mountains of Scotland are where the native squirrel will make its last British stand, in particular the protected highland vales of the huge Cairngorms National Park.
"There are a couple of forest areas that seem to have pretty good population of the reds," Dube said. "The one I know best is the Cairngorms. They're still surviving there."
Nova Scotia also has an invasion of gray squirrels, which recent studies have shown are now breeding from Digby to Windsor in the Annapolis Valley, despite attempts by the Department of Natural Resources to control the influx. Red squirrels there are not at risk from the grays' latent virus. Unlike their trans-ocean counterparts, the ones on this side of the Atlantic have developed immunity to the disease, and so far no recipes for Nova Scotia fried squirrel have appeared.
Helping save valued native wildlife by eating invasive aliens may sound strange to North Americans, but in Europe it's only a slight dietary expansion.
"I think in Nova Scotia, you wouldn't go to the grocery store and find venison. I've noticed that in Scotland, it's everywhere," said Dube. "They certainly eat more of it. You can go to any butcher or market and there will be a very large variety of game food available. There's always venison (deer), quail, partridge, rabbits and gray squirrel."
The manner in which Scottish meat markets obtain their wild meats is also different than in Nova Scotia.
"I've talked to my local butcher and he's told me they actually have a crew of them that go out and go hunting. Now, my understanding is that the hunting works a lot differently around there. You sort of get permission to hunt on a game reserve or private estate," Dube explained.
Ray MacLeod is a freelance outdoors writer. He lives in Waverley.