The silver and the russet-gold were fighting for the crown
The silver beat the russet-gold all around town.
Some gave them white bread, and some gave them brown;
Some gave them acorns and drummed them out of town.
The British red squirrel has been under threat from the American grey squirrel for about a century. Grey squirrels, first brought to England as exotic animals, were released into the wild around the beginning of the twentieth century. Their range has increased steadily since then.
The threat is serious. The American grey generally outcompetes the smaller red, eating a wider variety of foods and breeding better under stress. And where the newcomer appears, the native vanishes. There are no more red squirrels in the Home Counties.
Who killed Red Squirrel?
I, said the pox, did;
Of the native got rid.
I killed Red Squirrel.
With the irony that only history is capable of, the grey squirrel is also using a plague to reduce the red population and clear the ecosystem for colonization. Many greys carry squirrel parapoxvirus, familiarly known as squirrel pox. The greys have antibodies to the virus, and seem unaffected by it, but reds are entirely vulnerable. Within a fortnight of becoming infected, most are dead.
Sing a song of virus
Eyelids itch with pox.
Soon a lifeless squirrel’s
Packed in a box.
When the box was posted
The postie wouldn’t say.
Due to unforseen delay
He left it Saturday.
Squirrel pox is already endemic in England and Wales. Antibodies have recently been found in grey squirrels in the Scottish Borders, so the disease is known to be heading north. To assist in mapping the spread, the public is requested to send any dead red squirrels in for autopsy. Instructions for packing the dead squirrel are available on the internet.
It is particularly important to note that one should ensure it arrives on a weekday - a dead squirrel must not sit in the letter box over the weekend.”
Ring a ring o’rowan
Whither are ye goin’?
A scritching! A scratching!
We all fall dead!
It may not be possible to save the red squirrel on mainland Britain. The grey seems unstoppable, despite anything humans and other animals can do. Some have proposed abandoning the mainland effort and concentrating on island populations, which are easier to defend from the invasive grey.
But even this may fail. In a generation, the British red squirrel may be no more than a ghost, or a memory.
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is aye now free,
My heart’s in the Highlands a-climbing a tree
Climbing the pine tree, and nibbling at the yew;
My heart’s in the Highlands, though my time is through.
(All nursery rhymes are from A Kit’s Forest of Verses, attributed to the legendary Sciuric bard, S. Nutkin)