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Squirrels in the roof

Helen asks:

The other day we were woken up by scrabbling noises in the loft. We’ve just found out that it’s a grey squirrel! What can we do about it?

Grey squirrels are quite common now in suburbia, and very tame in many cases, coming up to houses and feeding almost out of your hand. Unfortunately, they can also be a pest if they get into your roof, as Helen’s now finding out.

Like other rodents, squirrels need to gnaw continually to keep their incisor teeth from growing too long. If they’re able to get into the roof void, then they’ll treat it as a safe opportunity to find things to gnaw. At the very least, if you’re lucky, they’ll damage whatever you happen to have got stored in the loft. At the worst they may gnaw through electrical cables, causing a fire hazard – and a fire in the loft is (a) likely to go undetected until it’s built up to a large size and (b) hard to get at to put it out.

How to deal with the problem? We had first-hand experience of this ourselves a few years back – we had a squirrel bounding along the drop ceiling above our bedroom bay window. Not wanting to be cruel to the animal, we phoned the RSPCA to ask their advice. The reply was unequivocal: get rid of it as quickly as possible! Grey squirrels aren’t a protected species, so they can legally be removed (unlike bats, for instance); and the risk of fire and other damage they cause is high.

(Unfortunately, it seems that the RSPCA’s advice about how to deal with squirrels may not always be so clear-cut as it was for us.)

So we phoned the council to ask about pest control. The council normally had a number of squirrel traps available, but they were all in use at the time. (Besides, as far as we know the squirrels weren’t taken elsewhere and released into the wild, but destroyed.)

As a short-term measure we nailed wire mesh into place along the length of the eaves inside the loft, to prevent it getting in among the boxes and electricity cabling and causing damage – which worked, but didn’t stop the noise. The next step was to find where it was getting in; not as easy as you might think.

Eventually we discovered that the squirrel was squeezing in through a small gap in the lead flashings between the roof and the window.

Flashings come in a variety of materials; the most common are lead and zinc, along with roofing felt for felt roofs and mortar or cement for older houses. None of them are easy to work with for the average DIYer. Although it’s possible to make some repairs to lead – patching cracks with flashing tape or repointing where the flashings are tucked into joints between the bricks – for a hole like this it really needed a professional to sort it out.

When the workman arrived, we hammered on the ceiling to drive the squirrel out, and then the workman made the repair when the coast was clear. He had to work quickly, though – it turned out he was afraid of squirrels…

Not a nice experience, all in all. So it’s worth keeping an eye on the state of your roof – including the flashings – to make sure that you don’t get any unwanted visitors you have to get rid of in a hurry.