What is small, eats hazelnuts and can reach a top speed of 14mph? The short answer is a Red squirrel, a small mammal whose precarious existence is hugely affected by the vagaries of our relationship with nature.
With a lineage stretching back to the end of the last ice age some 11,000 years ago, this little creature has been beset by misfortune ever since people started looking speculatively at the landscape and wondering if all those trees could perhaps be removed. The advent of agriculture in the British Isles some 7,000 years ago may have been the smoking gun that started the ongoing downfall of this, and many other, species. But let us first investigate some facts about the red squirrel.
If you have ever seen one, the first thing you will notice is how very insubstantial an animal it is. It looks to be made of nothing more than fluffy red fur glued to a tiny frame, its tail seemingly larger than its body and carried over its back like a cloak. The ears are perhaps the most striking feature, each one topped by a spiky crest of red fur, giving it the distinctive look of a fairy-tale creature. Yet despite its fragile appearance, the red squirrel can scuttle with ease through the forest canopy, leaping up to 8 feet from one branch to the next. Indeed, they move so fast that it is sometimes difficult to observe them for long. When two of them visited my garden early in the winter to dig up hazelnuts they had stored there, they moved rapidly from one spot to the next and, when back in the safety of the trees, were lost to sight completely.
They live on average about 3 years in the wild, although up to 3 times as long in captivity, yet only 1 out of 3 young make it through their first year and only half of those who survive get through their second. The reasons behind such a short and difficult life are many, but the blame tends to be firmly centred on another squirrel, the Grey. Whilst it is certainly true that as distribution of Greys increases, Red squirrel populations decrease, we must remember that the overarching factor in the numbers is down to our affect on the environment; it was people, after all, who introduced Greys into the British countryside over 150 years ago, alongside felling of forest cover which the Reds need for food resources and cover to build their nests, called dreys, which they line with mosses and grass. Greys are much hardier and can outcompete Reds at every turn.
Indeed, whilst the blame tends to be put upon the Greys, whilst incidentally encouraging a whole swathe of happy hunters, it is much more likely that our propensity for removing trees is the most likely factor in reducing both the Red’s range and their population; this is estimated at 120,000 in Scotland, about 85% of the total UK number. Evidence has been found of a 4,000 year old pine cone eaten by a red squirrel in a now treeless area of Scotland, showing how human activity can devastate our species. Disease, also said to be spread by Greys, is another big problem for these animals, but disease can be spread both ways! The emergence of leprosy in England in Medieval times has been linked to the trade in Red squirrel fur and the fact that they can be affected by a form of bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae (similar to the human form of leprosy).
Despite the environmental war we wage upon this tiny creature, the population is holding up reasonably well, although this is only due to the frantic efforts of ecologists who remove any species likely to be detrimental to the Reds. Although this obviously benefits a species that is on tenderhooks, ecologically speaking, one wonders how much effect our manipulations will have on the broader environment.
For time being, though, the tiny Red squirrel, the epitome of woodland charm, survives.