I planted several hazels in the garden a number of years ago and they have now reached an age where they produce a crop of nuts each autumn. This has not gone unnoticed by the local squirrels and a scatter of shells, neatly split into two, can be see on the path by each tree. I say ‘squirrels’ but it might be just a single individual, one brave enough to make a living in this highly fragmented urban environment. Up until a couple of years ago the grey squirrel was such a rare visitor to the garden as to attract a surprised comment and, even now, the bird feeders are never touched by this agile forager.
The grey squirrel is a creature that generates a mixed response from us humans. For some it is vermin, a non-native ‘tree-rat’ that has displaced our native red squirrel and brought about the decline of many woodland birds; for others it is a much-loved resident of urban greenspace and one of the few mammals accessible and approachable to a generation of children, growing up divorced from the countryside and its wildlife. The accusations made against the grey squirrel do not always stand up to scrutiny but such is the vitriol delivered in some quarters that claims and counter-claims are rolled out as fact. Take the supposed predation of bird nests for instance. Research has failed to find a link between the decline of woodland bird species and squirrel numbers. In fact, the evidence suggests that grey squirrels are not great predators of nest contents but find only the more exposed, poorly hidden nests, such as those of blackbird and collared dove. If anything, it is the red squirrel that is more of a nest predator than the grey.
Having said this, the grey squirrel remains an introduced species and one that has played a key role in the loss of the red squirrel from most of its former range. Efforts should, quite rightly, be made to prevent the grey squirrel from displacing the red from its remaining haunts and, additionally, be directed to increasing our understanding of the squirrel pox virus and its transmission from grey to red. But what about elsewhere in the UK? Given that the grey squirrel is now so well established across lowland Britain, should we not embrace it as part of our mammal fauna? It is not alone in being an introduction (think of little owl, for example) and its adaptability does deliver an experience of nature into our towns and cities. To see the delight in a child’s face when it watches the antics of an urban squirrel is to sense the contribution this species continues to deliver.