Once upon a time, (a mere 10,000 years ago), a deep freeze gripping much of Europe finally began to subside, and as the ice sheets retreated, the trees steadily marched northwards, migrating from the warmer southern lands. First to arrive were the birch, the aspen and the sallow, and then followed the limes and elms, the Scots pine, and the mighty oak. In Britain this natural process continued up until the land was cut off from the rest of mainland Europe by the rising seas, leaving an isolated island which was now covered from head to toe with a dense and very ‘wild’ wood. It is said that our friend the Red Squirrel, could cross from Land’s End to The Wash without even setting a paw on the ground.
A lot of this woodland survived for 7000 years up until medieval times: but by then more and more trees were being felled to make way for farmland, as well as for fuel and ship building. What made matters worse for the native squirrel was their very own dashing red fur coat, and squirrel pelts were in high demand; especially with the ruling classes. This is in contrast to European folklore where it was deemed as unlucky to kill a squirrel, and those who did so were said to lose their hunting skills. (This superstition has biblical routes, where it is said that upon witnessing Adam & Eve tuck in to the forbidden fruit, the angelic squirrel hid its eyes from this act of sin with its own tail; to save the squirrel from further embarrassment the creature was thus given a bushier tail).
There was a glimmer of hope for the squirrel population when the Victorians attempted to replant the forests, but just when things were starting to look up for the reds, the Victorians – who had a habit of introducing non native species to Britain – released the infamous American Grey Squirrel! The rest, as I’m sure you know is history. But help is now at hand, in the shape of a very unlikely ally: the Pine Martin. Even though the pine martin predates little Squirrel Nutkins, it seems that wherever this weasel relative is being reintroduced, the reds are somehow taking the place of the greys. This is believed to be so because unlike the reds, the greys didn’t co-evolve with this serial-squirrel-killer, and due to their habit of foraging more on the ground, and their bulk, which prevents them from reaching the spindliest branches away from a pine martins reach, the greys number is sadly up.
How far this trend will go is uncertain, but unless the pine martin makes the likes of London’s Regent Park its home, I think we’ll always have a few greys to entertain us – and entertain me they certainly do.