Squirrel tacos recipe from field to fork
With the greys causing damage and plenty of orders to fill, Leon Challis-Davies gets into the woods and whips up a Mexican treat - squirrel tacos
While spring hasn’t quite yet sprung as I write this, you can smell it in the air. The odd sunny day and the scent of freshly cut grass signals the start of the season, and the snowdrops and crocuses have made way for the primroses and daffodils. But the more consistent cold and wet conditions mean the trees remain bare, making it very easy to see squirrel dreys.
Ever since being introduced to our countryside in the 1870s, the grey squirrel has wreaked havoc on British habitats, causing problems to forests and native wildlife, devastating songbird and ground-nesting bird populations and being a nightmare to gamekeepers. So what better way to make the most of spring than to load up the freezer with these pests?
Stuart Eborall of Warwickshire Wild Game invited me to help control the numbers of squirrels on his rights one morning. While they are being controlled very well across all of his rights, he has seen a sudden increase in sales and orders for these delicious critters and so needed a hand along with some recipe ideas.
I packed my trusty gas stove and off I went. I was hoping for one of those rare sunny spring days, but alas it was not to be. A damp, drizzly grey day greeted me, complete with a nip in the air. But, fortunately, Stuart’s friend Tom Gosbell from Thomas Jacks came up with the goods to cheer me up, by letting me use his Pulsar Axion 2 LRF XQ35 spotter — and what a bit of kit this is. My day was suddenly a whole lot brighter.
We went out with the shotguns and Dotty, Stuart’s ever-reliable gundog. I hopped on to the back of Stuart’s 4×4’s tailgate and we shot off down the dirt tracks, wet mud flicking up off the tyres as we arrived at the copse. Getting out my spotter and looking through the dense woodland, I saw movement straight away. Stuart was first on the gun; he lined up his shot and took it well. One for one and we had only been out for five minutes. A great start. Walking down the track, I spotted something in the distance: a beautiful buck. Stuart has been tracking this deer for a while but this wasn’t our quarry; it was safe for another day.
Moving up the muddy track, we headed towards an opening that led into a field near one of the estate’s release pens. Looking at the feeders, you could really see how much damage the squirrels do. There was evidence of chewing through the tops of four of the feeders, which will cost money to replace. We needed to get on top of this area to prevent further destruction. We moved into the woods on the other side of the field, and the bare spring trees revealed a perfect drey to poke. Two shots into the drey from Stuart and out popped a squirrel. My barrel went off and we had two for two. Dotty sprung into action with her second retrieve of the day, straight to hand.
We moved across the woodland in stealth mode, two ex-rugby players trying to be as quiet as they possibly can. I’ll tell you something, we are nimble on our feet. Another squirrel was in sight but this time it was on the deck. A quick cough from me caused it to scamper away up a tree, giving Stuart his next turn. A crack and the shot was taken; three for three, we were on a roll.
Another drey spotted, we both took position for my go. Two rounds from Stuart and out popped another. It jumped hard across to the next tree but I brought it down with the first barrel. Four for four.
We walked down the uneven hillside — minding our step along the way as the rain had made the grass ice-like — to an open wooded area. The trees here were much more spread out, which made them easier to see through and meant easier shots, too. We managed five more in this area.
The weather started to worsen with the rain picking up, but we needed a few more squirrels before retiring for the day. We had orders to fill back at the Warwickshire Wild Game hub and lunchtime was fast approaching. We came across an area with several dreys and took our time to get into position, ensuring all the angles were covered by a gun and making sure we could reload quickly and safely to get as many as we could. Hitting the dreys like this gives the best chance of a positive end result — squirrels in the bag.
We hit one drey and it looked like a dozen jumped out. We had experienced the speed with which a squirrel can move and Stuart, gun at the ready, took the shot. Times like this show Stuart really does know what he’s doing. I hit a few more and the bag was growing well. We quickly started to run out of space and the weather was still less than encouraging. We called it a day; the order was filled and we had managed a few extra for lunch. It was back to the game larder for processing.
We decided the inclement weather would cause too much of a problem to cook outdoors, so we settled for Warwickshire Wild Game HQ — Stuart’s house. I love to cook outdoors, but cooking in a kitchen made this dish — squirrel tacos and burritos — so much easier for me.
I set up the mincer, and with the squirrels cleaned and both front and back legs removed, I filleted the loins off the back and took all the meat off the bones from the legs and placed it into the mincer on a 5mm grind. The meat was so fresh it only needed to go through once; it was beautifully soft and easy to eat.
I started with one finely diced shallot and two cloves of garlic in a pan, which I cooked until translucent, and then added the squirrel mince, browning it off evenly. I then added two tablespoons of smoked paprika, one teaspoon of chilli powder, half a finely diced chilli and one teaspoon of cumin. I did bring a store-bought jar of chipotle sauce too, so a teaspoon of this flavour punch went in as well. This all cooked gently for about 10 minutes.
Next I added two large tablespoons of tomato puree and a tin of chopped tomatoes, and seasoned it with salt and pepper to taste. I let this cook out for another 10 minutes before adding a tin of mixed spicy chilli beans; we were almost done. I made a quick fresh tomato salsa with diced tomatoes, red onion, fresh coriander, breakfast radish, lime juice, jalapeños, fresh mint, olive oil and salt and pepper. Keep it to yourselves, but I did bring a bag of microwavable mixed rice for the burritos. That’s a trade secret.
A handful of chopped coriander finished the chilli and it was done. For the burritos, we layered the rice on a tortilla wrap and topped with squirrel chilli and a bit of salsa, then rolled it up and tucked in. We also layered the squirrel chilli in the crispy taco shell in between the sharp, tangy salsa and the mixed rice for a bit of bite. It really did turn out to be a good day in the end.