Polly Pullar has had a passion for red squirrels since childhood. As a wildlife rehabilitator, she knows the squirrel on a profoundly personal level and has hand-reared numerous litters of orphan kits, eventually returning them to the wild. As her new book A Scurry of Squirrels is published next week, she tells us of the charming rodent’s fight for survival.
Perhaps it may come as a surprise that until 1981 when the red squirrel received legal protection, it was still legal to cull it. I certainly find it hard to imagine now that we have raised this enchanting little rodent to the summit of an albeit precarious pedestal and regard it as one of our favourite mammals. But then humans are fickle, and our perceptions change like the weather. Worryingly we like our wildlife to fit neatly into boxes – good and bad, and that will always be a problem. Every species great and small, would seamlessly slot together if we would only let nature manage nature. Humans are proficient meddlers.
During the Victorian era, you would have been just as likely to view a red squirrel dead swinging on the gamekeeper’s grisly gibbet alongside corvids, mustelids and even hedgehogs as you would have been to see it dancing through the woodland canopy. It was perceived as the ultimate woodland pest, a little fiend – more vermin (how I hate that word) requiring the death sentence. Most landowners and foresters had a negative anecdote to relate regarding this red-russet sylvan gymnast. The Farmer’s Magazine of 1802 stated that ‘The squirrel is one of the most destructive animals which frequents our forests.’ Coming from the species that invented clear-fell with its associated waste-laying, the species that continues to cause havoc with indiscriminate tree felling and scrub clearance, these accusations smack of hypocrisy. Country people also blamed squirrels for devouring both the eggs and nestlings of songbirds. Claims of their misdemeanours were rife.
In The History of the Squirrel in Great Britain, published in 1881, naturalist J.A. Harvie-Brown includes numerous stories and supposed evidence of the numbers of squirrels killed. He also includes viewpoints from many of the sportsmen of the day. In the 1860s, squirrels were plentiful on Cawdor Estate near Inverness, and therefore it was deemed necessary to cull them. There is a shocking record from 1867 of 1,164 killed in that year alone. A bounty of 6d (six old pence) was paid per tail, giving keepers and farmers an incentive to continue a squirrel war. Some are reputed to have caught them and then cut their tails off before setting them free in the belief that they would grow another, thus allowing eventual double payment. What these sad records do not reveal is how long a squirrel survived without its tail. This is its fifth limb for a squirrel, a balancing tool for the tightrope of the highest treetops, a blanket, parasol or umbrella. It is also vital for signalling to other squirrels to reveal the humour and intentions of an individual.
According to Harvie-Brown, ‘The numbers of squirrels killed depend a good deal upon the qualifications of the men employed, and on the price paid per tail.’ But, he adds, ‘Nor can we implicitly trust such records, because as Capt J. Dunbar Brander of Pitgaveny said, “on the estate of Cawdor many thousands of tails were paid for, supposed to have been killed in the district. One day the factor saw a bunch of squirrels’ tails arrive at the station addressed to one of the keepers; a day or two afterwards, they were presented to be paid for”.’ Nefarious business indeed!
Some landowners trapped squirrels and sent them to markets in the south, but squirrels are highly susceptible to stress. If the journey didn’t kill it, then once caged and living as a curiosity to grace a Victorian drawing room, death frequently claimed another victim. Squirrels are notorious biters; their continuously growing teeth are designed to open the hardest shells, and if they sank these nutcrackers into their captors, their fate was sealed.
Like the stoat and pine marten, the red squirrel was sought for its soft fur. According to Harvie-Brown, in 1836, John Colquhoun rented shooting at Kinnaird in Perthshire, where squirrels were abundant. Fifteen years later, he saw a large table at a local market with over 200 skins on it, shot on the Taymouth Castle Estate. ‘They began to kill them down at Taymouth between 1848 and 1849. I was at a bazaar in Perth, and the Marchioness of Breadalbane was there and had a stall. She had about 500 skins for sale.’
Far earlier, during the late 1700s, several enlightened landowners, including the Duchess of Buccleuch and the Duke of Atholl, brought in red squirrels from Scandinavia. Later, others followed the trend, and Lady Lovat brought them into Argyllshire during the 1800s. While some landowners went to great pains to bring them into their woodlands, others paid their keepers a bounty to kill them. Even during the early 1900s, destructive squirrel hunts continued, viewed as special occasions to mark Saint’s Days, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Large groups gathered and beat dreys with long poles, sending the petrified squirrels into the open, where guns or catapults killed them. If a drey proved too high, a tree would be felled instead. In a report from the Glasgow Herald in 1904, the Ross-shire Squirrel Club killed nearly 4,000. They accounted for almost 5,000 in the previous year. Other records claim that the Highland Squirrel Club accounted for over 82,000 red squirrels between 1903 and 1929.
The red squirrel has been a part of my psyche since early childhood, for I was reared on the entertaining stories of Beatrix Potter. When The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin was published in 1903, naturalist Potter probably had no idea that her brilliant images and words would be a catalyst that began to change our thoughts. Some fifty years later, another red squirrel was a crucial player in the evolution of our attitudes towards squirrels. Tufty became the figurehead for a road safety campaign aimed at small children. I was made a member of the Tufty Club and wore my badge with pride. Now when I see a pathetic little squirrel body dead on our busy roads, it is heartrending to witness that the Tufty Club’s wise message for children can do nothing to protect the vulnerable relatives of its cult hero.
It was not until I was nearly nine and sent away to an all-girls boarding school set on a wooded Perthshire hillside, near Dunkeld, that I began what has since proved to be yet another of my wildlife love affairs. Living on the mainland’s most westerly peninsular, Ardnamurchan, a wealth of wildlife surrounded me, including wildcats, otters and golden eagles, but there were no squirrels. In Dunkeld, my first sighting in the school’s extensive grounds dramatically affected me. Suffering from acute homesickness and desperate to return to the wilds of the west where I ran feral, I loathed the regimentation of boarding school. Now I began to build dens for squirrel watching. Their intoxicating enchantment and hilarious antics saved me from further misery as they drew me into their world.
Most years, I receive injured squirrels as well as orphan kits to hand-rear for eventual release. When a litter arrives, another journey begins involving around the clock feeds – will they survive? Will I be able to save them and reach that auspicious day of freedom? Stress is indeed a killer; any animal or bird that has lost its mother begins life with a disadvantage. Heaven knows it’s also tough enough in the wild as we encroach further and further on the natural environment. As I rise in the small hours in high summer, the kitchen windows flung wide and the hot breath of night sighing from the garden, the calls of tawny owls fill the room, I feel the weight of responsibility towards these tiny squirrels so dependent on me. One memorable litter of three, naked, blind, and clammy, was approximately four days old on arrival. I could hold their tiny squirming bodies in the palm of one hand. It threw a glaring spotlight on the hard truth that we hold the key to the future of all our precious wild things. Unfortunately, the red squirrel is not out of the wood, and though it retains strongholds, it is still in severe decline. Scotland holds 75% of an estimated 160,000 UK population. Habitat loss and disease issues often caused by the presence of the non-native grey squirrel continue to be devastating threats.
After months with my charges and much laughter at their incredible antics and cheeky behaviour, we reach our goal – release is tinged with euphoria and nervous anticipation. They leap joyously into the trees and become as one. It is as if they have always been there – gold medallists in the arboreal Olympics. A lump comes to my throat, and yes, there are tears. This is where they should be.
We do indeed love red squirrels, but it’s important to remember that without our help, we are in danger of losing these athletic woodland sprites. We must work ceaselessly towards repairing the damage we have caused and restore our beleaguered ecosystems to provide not only a safe future for the red squirrel but for all the other creatures that share its world. Then we will create a vibrant patchwork that is life itself. Hope for the future for every living thing – including us.