Websailor's Wacky Wildlife World

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A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of
salt, but with more than a grain of truth!

The Squirrel Conundrum

This past week I have had a great deal of entertainment and pleasure from watching scatty grey squirrels scrambling round my garden, taunting the local cats into giving chase, and of course leaving them standing flummoxed at the bottom of the trees. You could hear them 'laughing' from the safety of a tall conifer or the oak tree! They steal bird food, bury peanuts for the magpies to find, and get themselves in all sorts of tangles in the bushes; the youngsters in particular crashing to the ground, none the worse for wear after misjudging a leap.

I put out an apple, studded with peanuts, hanging on a double piece of string from a branch of a dead conifer. I had great fun watching a couple of them trying to pull the apple off, swinging hither and thither, winding it round the branch, biting chunks off, hanging upside down to try that way, and sitting on the fence and pulling with all their might. They are the most amazing contortionists and so agile.

Today they have been feeding in the pouring rain, and once again I was struck by how cleverly they use their tails like an umbrella to protect themselves from the rain. Therefore it was interesting to find that in its Latin name,   sciurus carolinensis, the sciurus means 'shade-tail', which now makes perfect sense as they do it when the sun is hot, too. They 'shudder' their tails in distress, which I find rather strange, as they freeze in fear, well camouflaged, for example if a sparrowhawk dives in, yet their tails will wave anxiously, giving their position away.

I can remember my father feeding the grey squirrels over 40 years ago, and getting great pleasure from the experience, though they were not as prevalent as they are today, and he had to stop when they damaged a neighbour's electricity cables.

Those people who have the red squirrel  sciurus vulgaris in their vicinity count themselves lucky to have our indigenous squirrel still resident amongst them and a determined effort is being made to protect them. Deforestation amongst other things puts the red squirrel at risk from loss of habitat, and a lack of their more specialised diet, make their disappearance a cause for concern. It is included as a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan . They also face the deadly virus squirrel pox carried by the greys, which kills them, while not harming the greys themselves.

Yet the revered and protected red squirrel was not always so popular, having been shot in great numbers in the New Forest and in Scotland in previous centuries. Deforestation of ancient woodland for a variety of reasons such as agriculture, fuel needs, and war, was followed by replacement with mass planting of conifers, which appears to be a preferred habitat for red squirrels. Numbers soared causing them to be regarded as timber pests, hence the mass cullings. It is strange how times and opinions change.

Now the case is reversed, and one of the many reasons that grey squirrels are now regarded as pests is their damaging effect on trees, stripping bark to reach the sap for food in a way which kills trees, taking young birds and dormice from nests, and generally causing problems for other wildlife.

Obviously there are also financial reasons for removing the grey squirrel in that it has an adverse effect on the quality of commercial timber, and they are also dangerous in residential areas where they are known to nest in lofts, chewing through wiring and insulation which can cause fires, and even chewing through plastic water tanks — a very expensive problem for those affected.

Grey squirrels will eat/chew almost anything. Their teeth are viciously sharp, continuously growing, and they need to gnaw to keep them in trim. They have been known to attack people on occasion. One of the many reasons for the increase in numbers is the amount of waste food left around by the human population, and, of course, those people like me who actively feed them. I have to be honest: I feed them, as otherwise they steal the bird food, wreck the feeders and dig up bulbs. Feeding them is infinitely cheaper!

Many parts of the UK are overrun with grey squirrels, yet other areas hardly see any. This cute, entertaining grey interloper does not belong here, having been brought from North America in 1876 as an interesting and entertaining new species. Only one of the initial introductions failed and the grey squirrel has since thrived. It has driven out our home grown squirrel, in doing so making as many enemies as it has made friends.

There is now a massive campaign afoot to kill the greys in red squirrel habitat, and carry the cull onward throughout the country. This would require huge expense and much co-ordinated planning to make it work, as it is known that if a family of greys is driven out of one area it is very soon colonised by neighbouring squirrels, so it seems to me that culling in the form of shooting and trapping is not going to work. Poisoning with something like Warfarin (rat poison) has dangerous implications for other forms of wildlife too.

Other methods of control need to be implemented as soon as possible, such as contraceptives for greys and a vaccine for reds. Some red squirrels have been found to have developed an immunity to the squirrel pox virus, opening the way for a possible vaccine.

Regarded as vermin, though they are not tree rats as many people think, grey squirrels can be killed at any time of the year. Indeed, pest controllers kill many thousands a year, and in some areas they have had some success with the return of the red squirrels. Many of the culled 'vermin' are sold to high class restaurants to be cooked and sold as an expensive treat! Apparently, there is a huge demand for this 'delicacy' which is proving hard to meet. The squirrel pox is said not to affect humans, so that's alright then!

The burgeoning population of greys, believed to be in the region of three million (I wonder who counted them?) far outweigh the 160,000 or so reds believed to be still in existence. Most reds are in Scotland but small groups are surviving against the odds on the island of Anglesey, Wales, Brownsea Island, Dorset, Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, and forests in Derbyshire and Merseyside. They also remain on the Isle of Wight.

Extermination is such an emotive word, and it is hardly surprising that such plans have given rise to a great deal of ill feeling, particularly from animal welfare groups, and individuals who regard the wholesale killing of any animal as sacrilege. It does seem particularly unfair when the animal itself had no choice, and has simply made the best of the 'spot' in which it found itself. The grey squirrel is a born survivor and I suspect that only very drastic measures will succeed in controlling or reducing the population.

Of course, there is an amusing possibility that the grey squirrels could be trained for a useful purpose, that is uncovering buried drug hauls, which has apparently happened by accident. The report did not say whether a band of 'high' squirrels led the authorities to the find, but it is a nice thought! Perhaps they might be allowed to have a happy demise? But that of course would also be an abuse of their animal rights.

I can usually make up my mind on the evidence available, but in this case I am sitting on the fence, and a very uncomfortable place it is, too. I would really miss the little varmints creating havoc in my garden, but if they are having a serious environmental impact, as opposed to just a financial one, then an effective and kind solution must be found, sooner rather than later.

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11.06.2009 Front Page

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