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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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The best defence against Alzheimer’s

Spoiler: the best way to avoid Alzheimer's is to stay young.

At the recent meeting of the European Academy of Neurology in Copenhagen, doctors were signing up to attend a workshop teaching non-specialists to test for cognitive decline in their patients. How do you tell the difference between a scatterbrain and a case of early dementia?

It’s a question that is increasingly urgent. Last year, 47.5 million people were living with dementia. That will have risen to 75.6 million by 2030 and will reach 140 million in 2050. The World Health Organisation has declared that dementia should be regarded as a global public health priority. But what can we do about it?

The primary cause of dementia, accounting for roughly 70 per cent of cases, is Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all very well to put a name to it, but we don’t have a clear understanding of the mechanisms that cause it – or medicines to battle it. Alzheimer’s drugs have a high rate of failure. In the decade to 2012, 99.6 per cent of newly developed drugs failed to make it past clinical trials. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s and none on the horizon, either.

There was, however, a small breakthrough last month. A study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine suggests that Alzheimer’s could be a result of fighting infections from other diseases that would, if left unchecked, ravage the brain. The hard lumps of sticky plaque in the brain that characterise the onset of Alzheimer’s seem to be the result of the immune system attempting to isolate and neutralise microbes and other pathogens that have made their way into the brain. The plaques catch pathogens, preventing infection from taking hold. Unfortunately, it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t: the plaques also trigger inflammation that leads to the death of brain cells.

This observation mirrors another catch-22 with Alzheimer’s. Some researchers have suggested that the drug failures might be averted by getting candidate treatments to the disease earlier, before symptoms appear. Put simply, the drugs may stand a better chance of success when trying to counter the first stages of damage to the brain. The problem is: how do you get that early diagnosis?

There are various genetic indicators for a heightened predisposition to developing Alzheimer’s. A gene called apolipoprotein E, for instance, comes in three variants: one kind seems to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s while another increases it. Other genes – variously associated with the body’s uptake of cholesterol, its propensity to engender inflammation and the efficiency of communication between neurons – also have a role to play in raising or lowering the chances of onset.

However, the interplay between genetic factors, environmental factors and what appears to be pure luck makes foreknowledge of whether Alzheimer’s will strike any individual impossible. It’s no wonder that the US National Institutes of Health does not generally recommend genetic testing as a worthwhile route for anyone wanting to know their future. After all, a result that indicates you are more likely than the average person to develop dementia is, in many ways, little more than a heavy psychological burden, to be borne until the symptoms start to appear – a scenario that keeps you stressed (a grave health risk) even if onset never happens. If the drugs don’t work yet, why would anyone sign up to be tested?

In the absence of a reliable test or cure, the best advice seems to be to delay ageing as much as possible, particularly where cardiovascular health is concerned. It’s an observation that fits with last month’s breakthrough. The plaque-provoking pathogens reach the brain through the weakening of the blood-brain barrier, a wall of cells that wraps around blood vessels and prevents foreign bodies from passing into the brain’s circulatory system. This weakening happens with age, suggesting that action to delay the degradation of the cardiovascular system will also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Here, at least, we have some good news: the rate of appearance of dementia cases seems to be in decline. This may be a spin-off of our attempts to cut deaths from heart disease. It seems that as we take control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, making significant improvements to our heart and circulatory function, we are unwittingly improving our cerebral health, too – almost certainly because the brain requires good blood flow to operate well.

The surest way to avoid Alzheimer’s, then, is simple to state and impossible to achieve. All you have to do is stay young. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain