Are we being unkind to the greys?

In the Countryside: Grace Corne wonders if grey squirrels’ reputation is unfair.

It is a pity the grey squirrels are so despised. They are a wonderful example of the rewards to be gained by hard work, and they certainly make tremendous efforts to care for themselves and their families. It is interesting to read that in 1921 they had distinct novelty value and it was said that the Zoological Garden at Regent’s Park had become so full of the imported grey squirrels that the animals were set free and became so tame they would feed from the hands of children.

Unfortunately the grey squirrel, in its efforts to find food, can be extraordinarily destructive, especially when it turns its attention to the trees. It enjoys a varied diet of nuts, fruits and flowers and, given the chance, will also access bird feeders and bird’s nests.

Two squirrels with various tastes were noticed locally recently. One was precariously bouncing on the very end of a hazel twig in an attempt to eat the catkins, and the other was putting a great deal of effort into dragging a corn cob to its tree.

The grey squirrel did not arrive here naturally. Its appearance is entirely due to humans. The squirrels were not only brought here from America as exhibits in London Zoo and Woburn Abbey they were both deliberately and accidentally released and have now spread almost countrywide. It was unfortunate that as the grey squirrel multiplied the native red squirrel began to disappear. It seemed natural to blame the grey squirrel and it was accused of either deliberately removing the red squirrels or of infecting them with some fatal disease. However in some areas the red squirrel had vanished before the grey arrived and in others it was reported that the two species lived happily together for at least 16 years.

The grey squirrels will breed twice a year, in early spring and early summer and usually three and sometimes four young will result each time. One of the favourite foods of the grey squirrel is beech mast but if there is a surplus of any food it will be buried for later. This often results in trees and shrubs sprouting in unexpected places.