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The solution to the grey squirrel crisis? Pastry, a roux sauce, mushrooms and hazelnuts

An organised cull of grey squirrels could also be a culinary opportunity.

Prince Charles is among those repeating their calls for an organised cull of grey squirrels in Britain as a way of helping the declining native red squirrel.

Despite being larger and stronger than their red cousins, living in denser numbers and out-competing red squirrels for the same food, it is predominantly the virulent squirrelpox disease that greys carry that has driven red squirrel populations from all but a few areas in northern England and Scotland. A recent paper on conservation management by Andy White at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and colleagues uses red and grey squirrels as a case study, arguing for better control in cases of invasive species whose effects are disease-driven.

Another useful study by Pia Schuchert at the University of Newcastle and colleagues examines grey squirrel control over 13 years between 1998 and 2010, and finds that typically they were effective in bringing down grey squirrel numbers, and also lowering the numbers that carried squirrelpox.

With Prince Charles keen on organic food and support for local butchers growing, no doubt he’d approve of putting this squirrel bounty to some culinary use. As we did, at the sixth annual squirrel cook-off in the Six Bells pub, near Cambridge, with 23 dishes of grey squirrel snacks. The dishes reflected the very different directions of the cooks: curried Bollywood squirrel, squirrel in filo pastry, squirrel pie, squirrel eggs in a nest, and the winning dish of squirrel sausages.

Using legally trapped or shot grey squirrels as food has been in vogue for a few years now, a trend picked up back in 2008 when the Guardian newspaper proposed squirrel as “the ultimate ethical meal”.

Being a food science and nutrition lecturer who is involved in and teaches food culture, I am not averse to eating a whole range of different animals for food, if humanely killed. Grey squirrels have the advantage of being low in fat, low in food miles – an estimated five million in Britain and counting, available almost everywhere – and obviously entirely free range.

As a culinary experiment last year a friend presented me with two squirrels which I skinned and gutted and cooked in two different ways. The first was as a red wine, juniper berry and mushroom casserole, which friends pronounced to be too strong and gamey. This was perhaps due to using the male squirrel – the female used for the favoured dish of squirrel flamed with brandy and then lightly cooked with cream and hazelnuts, was milder, like a slightly gamey chicken.

So being presented with two skinned and cleaned squirrels in a plastic bag to prepare and cook was not too daunting. To remove any taint a light brine was used and then a marinade of ginger flavoured cider, casseroling with garlic, more cider and thyme. The meat was then removed and added to a roux sauce with mushrooms, cream and hazelnuts, chilled and then used to fill 40 small croustades. It may not have won, but only three were left at the end of the judging and tasting.

But are squirrels any healthier than, say, chicken? The US Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database provides the nutritional content of a very wide range of foods, including various game meats. According to the records, per 100g the squirrel has more protein (31g) and less fat (5g) than roasted chicken (29g and 9g), stewed chicken (27g and 7g), or venison (26g and 8g). In fact only rabbit, at 33g and 3.5g, provides a more protein-rich and low-fat meal.

However, low-fat and high-protein comes with its own drawbacks – the syndrome known as “rabbit starvation” experienced by hunter-gatherers and subsistence dwellers of northern latitudes, and recorded by Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Steffanson, stems from a diet with insufficient fat; rabbit meat alone is simply too lean.

So with all the greys living on the estates at Prince Charles' disposal and the professional chefs employed by his Duchy Original brand, I’m keen to see the day that royalty-approved squirrel snacks make their first appearance. Certainly, judging by the varied approaches taken by those in the Six Bells there’s plenty of options out there.

The ConversationSusan Bailey does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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