It was the morning after the workshop, our last morning in Cumbria, and adventure called. We had stayed an extra night to allow us to drive the long way home, through the stunning landscapes of the Lake District… and via a place we had long wanted to see.
We were up and out with the cameras as the sun rose, then came back to load our bags into the car, so we could be ready to leave straight after breakfast. Our timing was unexpectedly perfect, and we were given a gift that I, for one, will not forget.
The creature paused, just for a moment, head up and alert, before diving across the narrow lane in front of the car and disappearing into the undergrowth. The whole sighting lasted no more than a few seconds, and yet we were as excited as if the Loch Ness monster had sauntered across our path and demanded an interview and photoshoot. Well, okay, maybe not quite… but it isn’t every day you see a red squirrel and we were thrilled.
In fact, I cannot remember the last time I definitely saw one. There have been a few ‘maybe’ reds, but no certain sighting for years.
They used to be everywhere when I was a child and it was easy to learn how to tell reds from greys. It isn’t just about colour, for greys can have a lot of red in their coats and, especially in winter, reds can have a lot of grey. But the red squirrel is smaller, more delicately built and has the pale belly and the distinctive tufted ears that make it an even prettier animal than its grey cousin.
Red squirrels are rare now in England and Wales… almost non-existent, in fact. There are just a few pockets surviving in the north and at the farthest edges of the country. With over two and a half million grey squirrels and less than a hundred and forty thousand reds, ‘Tufty’ is fighting a losing battle.
Predictions are that, without drastic measures to help them, the red squirrel will be extinct in England within the next ten years.
Habitat loss and the introduction of the eastern grey squirrel from America by the Victorians are to blame, as the eastern grey carries the squirrelpox virus to which they appear to be immune, but against which our native reds have no defence. The virus subjects the red squirrel to a slow and extremely painful death with almost no hope of recovery, even with veterinary help.
There is hope that, if we could just protect and preserve them for long enough, the reds will develop their own natural defences or immunity to the disease and some antibodies have been found in a squirrel already. But with just a few years left on their clock, drastic measures have been taken to give them a chance, culling the greys. Where this sad course has been taken, the red squirrel has begun to recover. On Anglesey, for example, a combination of approaches has seen the red squirrel population increase from just forty to seven hundred in the last few years… but that island colony represents over sixty percept of the entire red population in Wales.
I love squirrels. They have a special place in my heart, both red and grey, and I hope a solution may be found where both can thrive in this country. But this was the first time in decades that I have had a clear sight of a red squirrel and, no matter how brief the encounter, it was a joy. It hurts like hell to think that unless we do a better job of protecting them than we did our golden eagles, it may be the last.