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When does a pest become a pet?

Friday 11 November 2005

With the news that battle lines have been drawn to save the red squirrel, our countryside commentator John Sheard fears there may be domestic discord ahead

AS A firm believer in the fact that the countryside and its wildlife needs sympathetic but firm management, I should have been delighted when it was revealed this week that, at long last, strong measures are being taken to protect the few surviving colonies of native red squirrels in the wilder bits of Northern England (see News, Wednesday).

My initial reaction was to hope that it works, although we have probably left it too late. The invading American grey squirrel has been with us for almost 200 years and, since World War 11, it has driven most of our native reds out of most of England except for the conifer plantations so numerous in Cumbria, Northumberland and parts of North Yorkshire.

Grey invader: pest or pet?

Grey squirrels that penetrate within three miles of these colonies are likely to be shot or trapped. And it was only when the seriousness of this sank in that I became a trifle alarmed.

You see, we have a grey squirrel that has become almost a pet. We know that it is vermin - my wife calls it the Flying Rat - and she does everything in her power to keep it away from the various bird feeders we try to keep topped up, especially with winter approaching.

But, in fact, I suspect she loves it dearly. It has become more of a pet than a pest, for it is a cheeky little so and so and its antics have supplied us with hours of somewhat disapproving amusement. Like so many parts of modern life, we know we should condemn it - but secretly it gives us a lot of fun.

We hang our bird feeders below boughs of two trees some 20 yards from the front window - one a sycamore, the other a maple - and in her few relaxed moments, Mrs S kneels back on the settee and watches the birds through a small pair of binoculars.

We get a good avian show, too - a pair of lesser-spotted woodpeckers have turned up in the past two years, much further north than is usual - but I can always tell from mixed snorts of indignation and mirth that FR, the Flying Rat, has arrived on the scene.

He really is a remarkable gymnast. He can climb straight up, straight down, sideways and even backwards at incredible speed. And he his bright, too, because he has found ways of gnawing through the wires which holds the container bases in place and opens them like a bumper tube of Smarties.

When the nuts are on the ground, he gobbles up a few quickly and then carries some away to bury in some winter store. If the weather is nice, Mrs. S gives him enough time for a little snack and then rushes out to chase him.

This has become a game, because he simply nips up the nearest trunk, glides across a few overlapping branches, and sits looking at the wife whilst it enjoys a peanut. Anyday now, I expect him/her (sexing squirrels is not one of my skills) to clench a tiny paw, raise it to its snout and blow the lady wife a raspberry.

Secretly, I am sure my wife enjoys the game too. Although it costs us a small fortune in bird feed, which she pretends is annoying, she has nevertheless learned to repair the damaged feeders which she refills at every available opportunity - and awaits the next FR raid.

Thankfully, we are some way away from the nearest red squirrel sanctuary, as far as I am aware. Because if they did come to shoot FR, I suspect there would be tears, if not actual violence (against the shooters, I mean).

For another act in this little grey squirrel drama began to play this very autumn. FR was joined by another of his/her ilk and they spent many a happy hours chasing each other around in ever decreasing circles amongst the fallen leaves.

At first we thought they were fighting. But then another possibility dawned. Perhaps they are boy and girl squirrels and who knows what that might mean next spring? I know I should be appalled but I think I might have to get some more bird feeders.

After all, as it has taken almost 200 years to faced up to the problem (the first grey was spotted in this country in 1825 or thereabouts) it might be quite some time before FR gets the chop. So we might as well enjoy him whilst we can.

Your views:

  • I run a small animal sanctuary taking in orphaned squirrels as well as all other wildlife, and find that all the problems faced by wildlife is because of human overpopulation.

    Every where you look buildings are going up leaving animals with less and less space to live. We are loosing hedgehogs at an alarming rate; now they want to eradicate the grey squirrels.

    Maybe it is time to leave the animals alone and start looking at reducing the human population instead.

    Marianne Crowley - Keighley

  • I didn't really approve of the grey squirrel as i had been led to believe it was a giant of a thing going around murdering the tiny defenceless red variety of the same species. however, this all changed when i came across an orphaned grey unable to fend for itself and bound to die within hours.

    Thank goodness for all-night supermarkets! driving around in the middle of the night finding goats milk powder, baby rice, syringes and dehydrating fluid ready to begin the 2 hourly feeds gave me a feeling of satisfaction. I was totally unaware that I was breaking any law, the tiny innocent baby was unaware of it too! it snuggled into my chest and took its meal from the syringe then curled up on the blanket-wrapped hot water bottle and slept away its trauma. each time it was hungry it gratefully received the nourishment I offered.

    As it grew stronger i searched on the internet to find a sanctuary which would take this dear little creature and re-introduce it to its natural habitat! to my horror i found that it doesn't have a natural habitat, but not only that, it wasn't safe to release it anyway because apparently it will go straight out and become a murderer of its own cousins! what a load of rot!

    I can just imagine the people who champion this theory to stress the same about other such asylum seeking individuals. lets face it if the grey squirrel has been here for 200 hundred years surely it has earned some rights by now. have you ever looked into the eyes of a sucking baby grey squirrel? if not you should try it. it may melt your heart too.

    Caroline - Northern England

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