image of a squirrel

Sparrows – 4th Feb, 2024

Before the red squirrel became rare, it was regarded by hunters and farmers as vermin. They ate the seeds in the fields and grouse-feed too. And much less well known, they added to their diet with birds eggs and chicks, Game keepers shot and trapped the cuties.

The grey squirrel was introduced from the US by Thomas Brocklhurst, a rich landowner in Cheshire, in 1876. He kept two pairs caged for his guests amusement. And when they wearied of the animals, he let them go. This was repeated by other landowners and before long grey squirrels were all over these islands.  At the time some, when numbers were lower, regarded them as prettier than our own native reds.

That didn’t last long, as the numbers of greys exploded, taking over as the dominant species in the Midlands and Southern England. In the Second World War, with meat on ration, it was recommended that they be hunted for food with recipes for squirrel pie and squirrel stew, recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), only too keen to get them off farmland. But for the majority, the appellation ‘tree rat’, turned them off such food. OK for dogs maybe. Not so for many a GI from the Appalachian states, here for the war, they paid good money for grey squirrels. But hunting reds for squirrel pie is an ancient tradition for impoverished farmworkers, way before the greys outflanked the natives.

In the 1950s a ‘bob a brush’ was offered by MAF and the Forestry Commission. After five years, over £80,000 had been spent, equating to over a million dead squirrels, mostly greys, but overall numbers hadn’t dropped and the scheme was dropped. Gamekeepers were outraged. Harold MacMillan, Prime Minister in late 50s and early 60s, and a keen grouse shooter, claimed the bounty had cleaned up his estate. He wanted the bounty restored, and might have pushed it through Parliament if the Profumo scandal hadn’t forced his resignation.

The red squirrel is less resistant to disease, nothing to do with the grey, but the latter is more aggressive and has pushed out the red in many habitats. These days, the red squirrel has its main stronghold in Scotland and Ireland. In England, red squirrels only survive on the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island, where there are no greys, and in the pine forests of Northumberland and the Lake District

The red, through its rarity, is seen, by some, as truly British, and the grey as an invasive species. But  views vary. Hunters, farmers and foresters regard the grey squirrel as a pest, and, no doubt, would feel the same way about the red if there were more of them. Townies though tend to find them cute and cuddly, fostered by children’s books such as Beatrice Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. You wouldn’t want to kill an animal that tells riddles, such as:

“Riddle me, riddle me, rot-tot-tote!
A little wee man, in a red red coat!
A staff in his hand, and a stone in his throat;
If you’ll tell me this riddle, I’ll give you a groat.”

Nutkin is cheeky, and doesn’t do what he’s told, which is why children prefer him to his well behaved brothers. But I don’t have a farm or a forest, I don’t shoot grouse, and so I like squirrels. I have never heard one tell a riddle, but they are incredible climbers, shinning up a tree if we approach them, and hiding round the back. Though their eyesight isn’t that good; it’s movement they respond to. I have stood stock still and had them approach and even climb up my leg as if I am a tree. They have a magnificent tail, bushy and sweeping, though (spoiler alert!) Squirrel Nutkin doesn’t in the end. Certainly they eat nuts, buds and bark and will make great efforts to get to bird feeders, running along washing lines and climbing poles to get a free lunch. I’d rather they didn’t eat chicks and eggs, but whether you love them or hate them, grey squirrels are not going away. It’s way too late for that. I am reminded of foxes, how they have come into towns along railway cuttings and are now indigenous. As we plant more trees, we’ll get more squirrels, a sort of spontaneous generation.

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