Report from Chris Smith.
With grey squirrels driving out the indigenous reds, should we be introducing more new species?
To drive along the road from Garvald to Stenton, as I did last week, you pass along a short dark avenue of tall coniferous trees, through which, on this particular day, brilliant shafts of sunshine shone. Across one of these a small squirrel bounded, its auburn tail curling behind it and the pelage gleaming russet. For a heart-stopping moment I was deceived into thinking this was that most beautiful of woodland creatures, a red squirrel. Impossible of course and not even worth further investigation. What I had seen was a young grey sporting its summer coat, a descendant of those imported from North America in 1902 by the Duke of Bedford and released into Woburn Park. Shortly afterwards a number were presented by him to the London Zoological Society which, after a brief period of acclimatisation in the Squirrel Trees enclosure, were let loose in Regent's Park.
The antics of these ingenious and acrobatic creatures, intended to attract visitors to the zoo and amuse His Grace at Woburn, were to have far reaching consequences.
Grey squirrels have little to fear from natural predators and as any red-blooded dog knows, rarely stray far enough from trees to place themselves at risk. Breeding twice a year and rearing litters of three or four young in the safety of their 'drey', a tightly-woven nest of leaves set high up in the fork of a tree, the grey squirrel population expanded at a phenomenal rate. In a matter of years they had spread to every part of England and lowland Scotland, killing indigenous red squirrels as they went. Now these are virtually extinct except in remote, isolated parts of the country. Occasionally, some will make a comeback where the predatory grey has been temporarily eradicated, but it is never long before t become re-colonised.
Not just the red squirrel was squirrels are omnivorous and wherever they penetrate they effect whatever is part of peace of the countryside and man's make a living from it. During the they feast on the eggs and fledglings of nests they can reach. Fruit, grain, the young trees and shrubs all make up part diet. Nor do they feed just to satisfy appetite. Where there is an abundance, be it strawberries fiskins, greys will strip wantonly storing Their numbers grew so rapidly and in devastating proportions that the Field magazine instituted The National Grey Squirrel Campaign in 1931 Backed by the Ministry of Agriculture and a ban on any further imports, the spread tree rats became controlled in some areas, only to escalate again during the Second World War.
Today, despite the ongoing efforts of responsible landowners, grey squirrels continue their destruction.
When one considers the damage that these animals, mink and coypu, all foreign imports, done in the 20th century I query the wisdom of re-introducing beaver in the 21st.
Sir John Scott
© Mail on Sunday, Spectrum Magazine, 10 th June 2001
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