The squirrels look as though they make everyday life into a game; they have the kind of mischievous intelligence once attributed by folklore to hidden, supernatural creatures such as fairies, elves, goblins and the like.
These grey and ginger squirrels are tricky. To some people they are a delight to watch; to others they are an anathema, interlopers blamed for the demise of the native red squirrel.
A group of half a dozen – I imagine them as a family or tribal gatherers – are foraging for seeds under a big old sycamore. It’s a bit parky, the frost only just going off will soon return with the breath of darkness when the sun, all syrupy gold at the moment, slides behind trees.
Until then, the squirrels are watchful but skittish, with lots of bolting across ground, running up the tree, sitting meditatively on a branch for a moment with tail open like an electrified toilet brush before flicking it, twizzling back feet backwards and running full-pelt back down the tree again. They examine sycamore seeds with hands like pawnbrokers. They nibble some, find hiding places in the sward to stash others: they are squirrelling.
The case against Sciurus carolinensis is that they are not native (they are North American), they have out-competed red squirrels and hastened their end in much of Britain by carrying a pox that doesn’t affect greys but kills reds. However, I have worked with people who earned pocket money from the bounty on red squirrel tails in the 60s.
The grey squirrels here are not native, neither are the sycamore trees, neither are many of the grasses and other plants seeded in the field, nor, in a strictly nativist sense, are the beech, limes and oaks planted here from European stock, or the people who planted them, or who look at them now.
Up in the branches, the silvery lichens lucky to find the base-rich bark of a Carpathian sycamore – now thought of as the Celtic maple because of its success in the western uplands – are native. The lichens are living relics of a pre-existing, almost supernatural world far older than us – long gone but still here.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 01 Feb 2017.
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