There is one visitor to my garden that never ceases to fill me with admiration for his agility, his opportunism and his sheer bald-faced cheek. Other people might complain that he’s just a ‘rat with a fluffy tail’, that he’s ‘a foreign invader’ and that he steals all their expensive bird-food. Technically, all of this is true – the chap I’m talking about is a rodent (and so are rats), he is originally from the USA, and he is an adept pilferer. But I like him. Ladies and gentlemen, the grey squirrel will always be welcome in my garden.
Take yesterday, for example. I was looking out of the window to see if the combination of pouring rain and sun would conjure up a rainbow (it did).
As I headed back to the kitchen, I noticed a rustling in the hornbeam tree in the garden. A grey squirrel was working his way down the branch to where the bird feeder was hanging from a green metal hook about eighteen inches long. I recognised him as the local squirrel Godfather. I’ve christened him ‘Fat Boy’. This might seem unkind but is really a compliment on his plump good looks and spirit of derring-do.
Fat Boy hung on to the branch with his toes and then stretched and stretched until he was hanging upside down like an Olympic gymnast. Then, he turned himself the right way up and hugged the bird feeder amorously. He started to stuff his cheek pouches with expensive premium sunflower seeds (thirty-four pounds for twelve kilos, since you ask). Something must have distracted him, because he then slipped off the feeder, leapt into the bird bath with a mighty splash, and disappeared back up the tree.
This winter has been very mild, but in 2012 we had lots of snow. I made sure that the bird table was topped up, and just as well, because it soon became clear that I had a four-legged visitor. As I stood by the window one lunchtime, I watched as a squirrel tried to climb up the wooden post that forms the base. He would get so far, and then slide back down, but he was not deterred. After half a dozen attempts, he managed to get to the top, and then to reach out a paw to grab the edge of the bird table. He swung there for a second, then managed to get another foot on, and finally hauled up his back end. Then, he sat there, stuffing his face with as much seed and suet pellets and mealworms as he could. The snow was falling, and it looked to me as if he was using his big fluffy grey and chestnut tail as an umbrella, changing the angle so that it always faced into the wind. I couldn’t begrudge him a full stomach when it was so cold and food was so hard to come by.
During the nineteenth century, there were a series of grey squirrel releases in London. Between 1905 and 1907, for example, over a hundred were released in Regents Park. Soon, the grey squirrel was everywhere in the south-east. The well loved red squirrel was becoming rarer and rarer, and of course, the grey squirrel was blamed. However, there is good evidence that two things were more responsible for the demise of the red squirrel: firstly the destruction of the mixed coniferous forest that the red squirrel always favoured, and secondly the advent of squirrel pox. The grey squirrel has good immunity to this disease, but the red squirrel does not. Many naturalists believe that the grey squirrel merely moved in to the niches left by the disappearance of the red squirrel. Furthermore, grey squirrels are more adaptable, and can live in much more degraded habitat than the red squirrel.
In parkland, grey squirrels can proliferate to incredible numbers. I remember a walk in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh with my mother. The squirrels came from all directions as soon as we sat down, perching on the bench beside us with their hopeful little faces, scuttling out from under hedges and sitting up on their haunches whilst surveying us for signs of potential generosity. What they really like are peanuts, preferably still in their shells, and they reach out with cold, scratchy paws to take whatever we offered. The need to feed animals seems to be deeply engrained in us as humans: who hasn’t fed ducks, or pigeons, or even squirrels? They bring us in touch with other lives, give us a chance to be kind, and to feel part of a greater world outside our own homes and families. As far as I’m concerned, any creature that can not only survive but thrive in our parks and gardens is welcome to ransack the contents of my birdfeeders. When I created a wildlife garden, I chose not to be too picky about which wildlife turned up.