In which I learn a little of the history of Red Squirrels in the New Forest
Silhouetted against the pale sky, so that his pointed ears, blunt little face, his tiny, lithe body and cloudy tail stood out clearly, he really was an enchanting imp.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, published 1934
I’ve been away staying with family this week, so haven’t had the pleasure of a walk with Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon). Joan wrote about her walks in the New Forest in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest, a delightful read, full of her entertaining observations, knowledge, and her own lovely little sketches (including that of the Red Squirrel that heads this post). I’ve been following in her bootsteps (and the pawprints of Bill and Mr Bundy), and writing in this blog about what she saw, and about what has changed and what remains the same in the almost a hundred years that separate our tramps through woods and across heaths.
This week, although I’ve not been out walking in Joan’s company, I’ve learned something about the history of a past member of the New Forest’s wildlife community of which I was completely unaware (and I should have known better).
My family live in urban south-east London in a house bordered by a stream called the River Quaggy. The Quaggy’s name is probably related to quagmire, but here it is a no-nonsense, chattering brook with steep banks. It’s home to Moorhens and Mallards and, in the Willows that lean over it, Wood and Feral Pigeons, Rooks, Magpies, Tits and Sparrows, and those noisy newcomers, the Ring-necked Parakeets.
The Willows are also home to Grey Squirrels, which scamper up and down the tall trunks, leaping from branch to branch and onto the fence, before sprinting in their characteristic arching leaps into the garden to dig up (or hide) seeds and nuts. Their nervy alertness, curiosity and acrobatics make them better than daytime television for entertainment, and their alarm calls join those of the Magpies in warning the smaller bird visitors of feline marauders.
Grey Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), like the Parakeets, are, as we all know, interlopers in the UK. They are native to North America but were introduced here in the nineteenth century, after which their population spread. There are now some 2.7 million of them. Our native, and smaller, Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) can’t compete with the Greys, and populations have plummeted and become confined to the few areas spared the population expansion of the Greys; these include parts of Scotland and northern England and, closer to home, the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island.
Watching the Quaggy Grey Squirrels this last week, and amused as my family’s dog (a lovely loping rescue; part Staffie, part Boxer) barked at one up a tree, I was reminded of Joan’s description of a New Forest squirrel being chased unsuccessfully by Bill.
…Bill found a squirrel in the bracken, and had a brisk sprint after it to a pine tree just inside Broomy’s rails. Half-way up the trunk the entrancing little thing paused to look coolly down at his pursuer, hopelessly leaping up and down below. He stayed long enough for me to notice how perfectly his coat matched the variegated bark of the pine, and then slipped out of sight round the trunk. I knew if we waited long enough he would come out again to see what we were doing, for squirrels are as curious as monkeys, and before long he ran along a branch from which he could see us safely and easily.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
The present-day New Forest is bursting with Grey Squirrels: any walk beneath the trees is full of their chattering, the scrambling noises as they cross through the undergrowth, and the patter of nuts and twigs thrown to the Forest floor. Joan doesn’t say whether she is watching a Grey or a Red Squirrel, but each time I had previously read the passage quoted above, I assumed she meant a Grey. I was wrong, though, and shame on me, because only a little internet research showed me that in the 1930s – Joan’s time of writing about walking in the New Forest – it would still have been the Reds that scampered from tree to tree and peered out curiously at humans and their dogs.
My mistake was one of timing as I’d assumed, incorrectly, that Greys were already well-established in the UK by the early decades of the twentieth century. However, although they were introduced towards the end of the nineteenth century, they initially spread to different areas in fits and starts, aided by a continuing series of introductions to different locations (see this article about recent research by Dr Lisa Signorile and co-authors showing that the expansion of Grey Squirrel populations was due to a series of human-mediated dispersals – you can find the full research paper here). The Grey population expansion didn’t really accelerate until the 1940s onwards.
So, Joan would have seen Red Squirrels in the New Forest. It was a Red Squirrel that Bill chased to the pine tree; a Red Squirrel with “pointed ears, blunt little face,…tiny, lithe body and cloudy tail…”. Initially, this delighted me. But then I began to feel quite sad. Sad to think that less than a hundred years ago the New Forest was full of the scampering and squabbling of our native Reds, and sad to think that their demise is our fault. Sad, as well, that I am unable to watch them in the New Forest as I follow in Joan’s bootsteps on our walks beneath the trees. I’ve seen Red Squirrels in Scotland, but I do regret their absence here, where I live. I didn’t know they had been here so relatively recently (in ecological terms), and now I mourn them. It’s perhaps too comfortable to see the New Forest as a haven for wildlife – and, in many ways, thanks to many people, it is. But it is not immune to the anthropogenic changes for the worse that we as a species have piled upon our landscapes and non-human neighbours. The loss of Red Squirrels from the New Forest is just one example – all too easy to overlook because it happened a lifetime ago, but no slighter a passing.
Red Squirrels were hunted for food in the New Forest, including in the post-war rationing period, and, like the Greys today, also had to be controlled in terms of numbers to protect trees from excessive damage. You can find out more about this on Andrew Walmsley’s excellent New Forest – Explorers Guide website.
It was interesting to discover that the ambivalent relationship we have with Grey Squirrels – loving their antics, but decrying the damage inflicted on trees (making them forestry foes) was the same for the Reds back when they were numerous. How times have changed for our perception of the Red Squirrel, from hated ‘pest’ to protected species. In the New Forest, they were hunted for eating, but also for fun. Joan refers to squoyling(sometimes also called squogging, as squog was a local name for a squirrel).
In the Forest they eat squirrels, hunting the poor little beasts from tree to tree, and when the chance offers knocking them off their perches with lead-weighted sticks called squoyles, which they throw with wonderful success.Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest
While respectful of Forest traditions, I don’t think Joan liked the idea of this so-called sport much, as she moved away from her squirrel when she heard an approaching timber cart, in order to free the squirrel from gazing at the objects of his curiosity (i.e. Joan and the dogs) and to bound off and hide.
If I’d been there, I would have done the same.
Here’s a list of website and other resources I used to find out about Red and Grey Squirrels in the New Forest.
- New Forest Commoner: on squirrel hunting
- New Forest Explorers Guide: Red Squirrels and Grey Squirrels
- Signorile, A.L., Lurz, P.W.W., Wang, J., Reuman, D.C., Carbone, C. (2016). Mixture or mosaic? Genetic patterns in UK grey squirrels support a human-mediated ‘long-jump’ invasion mechanism. Diversity and Distributions 22: 566–577
- The Woodland Trust: Red Squirrels and Grey Squirrels