Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 10.2.15 - part two

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Fickle February! Great banks of pristine snowdrops, shimmering in the Arctic breeze seemed somehow to defy the fact that keen frost had been pretty much a nightly feature for a week or two. The ground had remained stubbornly rock hard for days on end before at last there were signs of a thaw. Days are now perceptibly lengthening and the strength of the sun increases. There is evident a growing sense of anticipation as more and more of our feathered friends seem to be gearing themselves up in preparation for forthcoming spring. Like a tide slowly and inevitably advancing across a lonely shore, there is a perceptible change in the air and a sense that winter may be in retreat. The ground is certainly softening and indeed, hope sprang eternal when the jaunty little chanting of the equally jaunty bluetit, provided another reminder that the march towards spring is unquestionably quickening.

There was also, a brief burst of the erratic and shrill little song of a dunnock to further confirm that spring fever is beginning to take hold albeit, thus far, it is hardly reaching epidemic proportions. Although there is more warmth in the sun now, nights are still more reminiscent of the Arctic than of the Mediterranean! But the rhythmic reeling of cock great tits is very definitely becoming more strident by the day. Challenges are being issued with real vigour … and answered! Sap and dander are clearly rising daily.

Deeply rooted emotions are certainly rising beneath the red breasts of rival cock robins. The rising volume of redbreast music, a tad more structured now, again tells its own tale of rising passions. And they don’t come more passionate than robins! My morning offerings of scraps are now attracting quite an audience. Whilst mainly intended for my motley little band of hens, a vigorous colony of sparrows assembles each morning to snatch whatever crumbs of comfort they can filch from under the very beaks of the chickens. A plethora of blackbirds also hover, with competition between them obviously hotting up. Indeed, the rivalry between them is such that they seem to spend most of their time chasing each other, thus missing out on most of the offerings.

The speugs are undoubtedly becoming increasingly vocal. As ever, their argumentative nature produces a constant chattering banter, which appropriately maintains their collective reputation as a ‘quarrel’! One redbreast, a regular customer at the morning ‘prayers’ is perhaps quietly repeating to himself an incantation of tolerance, for a rival has suddenly appeared on the scene and stays long enough to snatch a morsel before rapidly retreating. One day soon, I am sure, real hostilities are bound to break out! The war of words, if robin song can be thus translated, is ascending! It may yet turn very physical!

For a number of days recently, a thin skin of ice effectively placed an avian embargo upon the waters of the loch. Thus, I presume, the resident wildfowl moved on to other, unfrozen watery venues. As far as I could tell, there was for a time, no open water for the geese so I presume those that remained must have roosted on the ice. The ice persisted for days but was never thick enough to be fully bearing, yet on a couple of occasions, an intrepid fox was spotted padding confidently across its surface.

This brave-hearted animal seemed assured enough in its explorations and I can only presume that the notion of a free meal of goose was dominating its mind. I wonder how it knew the ice was safe? However, as both sightings were in broad daylight, inevitably, the birds, if there had been any, would, by the time Brer fox arrived, have flown! Of course, this bold creature may have conducted more covert but similar explorations under the cover of darkness and thus unseen. Its expectations of a meal would doubtless be more likely to be rewarded at night. And in any case, the ice would then likely be safer.

Yet such was the intensity of the frosts that even after three days of comparative mildness, the ice, now glazed over by a thin layer of water, persisted, negating the return of its usual plethora of birdlife. Winter may not have completely run out of steam yet but there is an unmistakable sense of change for the good in the air. That feeling was further accentuated by the sighting over nearby Lowland acres, of the first tightly packed squadron of lapwing of the season, making perhaps, their first foray into inland territory. Whilst lapwing cannot be classed as migratory birds in the true sense, spending their winters not in some tropical paradise but in or near the marine environment of our coasts and estuaries, their return inland does, in my mind at least, have real significance. Things are indubitably on the move!

That the natural world is awakening from its winter slumbers was further evidenced by the presence of a heron in the middle of a field, clearly in stalking mode and searching for migrating frogs. We imagine herons to be exclusively fish eaters but that is far from the truth. Like most forms of wildlife, herons are opportunists. Whilst they do spend much of their time beside water seeking out scaly prey, herons in the spring, will readily take young wildfowl, should they come within range, while small rodents such as mice and voles, and frogs, enter the diet when opportunity arises. They will even take worms if little else is on offer.

Whilst herons do often work alone, there are occasions when they naturally come together and work collectively. Indeed, herons are for instance, colonial nesters, often building little ‘villages’ high in the trees, not pretty places for heron nests are generally untidy bundles of ill-matching sticks. Living together is one thing but the spectacle of the advance of a rank of four herons across a field one early spring morning was something entirely different. It was vaguely reminiscent of a scene from some Wild West movie and revealed a very different aspect of a corporate approach to life. From time to time as they advanced in line, one or another of them would suddenly dart forward on those spindly legs and stab at the ground, in its quest for a frog.

That particular observation contrasted starkly with the usual sight of a ‘lonely’ heron standing at the water’s edge, often resembling some kind of grey statue, seemingly cast in stone. However, herons stalking the fields and seeking out the said frogs, illustrates their apparent willingness to work in concert. I have on other occasions, observed heron ‘creches’ when non-breeding adults have taken charge of young, newly fledged herons whilst parents are away collecting food. Such events are of course, some way off but already herons will be well into courtship mode for they are notoriously early starters when it comes to breeding, with eggs often laid by early March and not uncommonly, in late February.

Hope therefore, for them and for us too, springs eternal, that spring really is just around the corner.

Country View 10.2.15 - part one

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The one certainty about a snow-covered landscape is that all is suddenly revealed. Most animals are more active under the cover of darkness, a time in the depths of winter, when we are perhaps inclined to curl up in front of the fire and temporarily shut ourselves off from the world out there. We are during such times, therefore largely unaware of what may be going on in what may seem to be a hostile winter world, yet within metres of where we bask in our centrally heated lairs.

Scrutiny of that snow carpeted landscape once daylight returns, thus shows us very clearly, what we have missed! For all their elusiveness and their covert lifestyles, animals are themselves unaware that they, from the largest to the smallest, when snow covers the ground, unwittingly tell us, as clear as crystal, the stories of their otherwise anonymous overnight life adventures out there.

The snow near to the woodland edge for instance, is pockmarked with familiar slots, which tell us that the roe deer population in these woods is indeed healthy. The unmistakable tracks of brown hares, criss-crossing the fields, tell a welcome story that their numbers are at last on the increase. The long legged, fleet of foot hare, thought incidentally, to have been introduced from Continental Europe to these shores by the Romans, has enjoyed a roller coaster existence down the years. Once I could hardly look out on to the surrounding fields without seeing brown hares. Then they virtually disappeared, their numbers dwindling rapidly; now happily, they are making something of a come-back.

Ironically, the truly native hare here, the chameleon-like mountain hare, often known as the ‘blue’ hare, is as might be expected, mostly restricted to higher ground, although I do recall a time when a small population of them inhabited the nearby mosses. The adoption of white pelage during the winter months gives them remarkable powers of obfuscation in snow-covered mountainous terrain but in these soggy Lowland areas, where snow seldom lies for long, it had the opposite effect. Hence, incongruous recollections of a white hare spring to mind, bounding through a landscape bereft of snow and thus largely straw coloured and green; the leaping hare thus standing out like a sore thumb! Alas they no longer to be seen across those low-lying areas.

This white landscape understandably bears plenty of evidence of the wide-scale presence of pheasants, their footprints revealing a remarkably and to some perhaps, surprisingly terrestrial lifestyle in which they often seem to be reluctant to take to the wing. Meanwhile, a sortie in a familiar old estate woodland, largely unmanaged for many a long year and as a result, a real haven for a whole assembly of wildlife, was equally revealing. The old badger sett bore plenty of evidence of the recent passage of its inhabitants. I was mildly amused to hear someone on television recently, refer to ‘hibernating’ badgers (squirrels were mentioned in the same breath!). Neither badgers or squirrels hibernate albeit that in bad weather, they may ‘hunker down’ for days on end. But clearly the presence of snow on the ground is not necessarily a deterrent to the nightly wanderings of brock.

Had the pheasants, which also seek solace in that wood, been able to interpret one set of prints in the snow, they might well have decided to decamp. The distinctive trail of a fox in the snow, its ‘diamond shaped’ footprints set out in a very straight line might have been seen as ‘menacing’ had they been able to interpret them. Equally, the large prints of red deer, further revealed the variety of wildlife contained in those ancient acres of old estate policies. These prints demonstrate the current trend for these, our largest land mammals, to move to lower ground and back to their natural habitat of woodland. Populations of the said squirrels here incidentally, are prospering (reds of course) as is the new generation of pine marten.

So, every picture tells a story and when snow falls it certainly clarifies that picture. Yet the presence of snow does not necessarily tell the story of another animal, the presence of which is currently the cause of much debate. In Argyll, the official period of a trial in which beavers have been released into the wild, allegedly in controlled conditions, has drawn to a close and thus conclusions as to the future of these animals are about to be made. Already in Devon, it has been decided that the presence there of a beaver colony, is to be given the green light. That particular group of beavers has at some time, presumably been released unofficially into that West Country environment by ‘persons unknown’ and of course we have in Perthshire, a similar situation. There are now, it is believed, something in excess of a hundred beavers in the wild in various parts of Perthshire, another case of ‘unofficial’ re-introduction!

The presence of beavers is soon very evident. Beavers are of course, notorious for their felling of trees, which are then used in the building of dams to form lagoons, where there follows the construction of their remarkably intricate lodges. Indeed, these activities are cited by some, as reasons for not bringing them back. Beavers, as most people are well aware, were once native to these shores but were hunted to extinction, it is thought around four hundred years ago. Whilst the likes of wolves and lynx went the same way because they represented a threat to domestic livestock (and in the minds of many, as far as the wolf was concerned, concern for human life and limb), the beavers’ demise was down to the high value of their skins. Thus our forbears apparently knew their value but not their worth!

Those who oppose the re-introduction of beavers claim that the activities of these strictly vegetarian animals in damming burns, represents a problem for migrating fish such as salmon and trout, with the risk of dam building denying them access to spawning grounds. Yet, four hundred years and more ago, such fish apparently flourished side by side with beavers! The anti beaver lobby also expresses concerns about the inadvertent flooding of farmland although there are also those who assert that if beavers are in the right place they can actually reduce the risks of flooding by slowing down the flow of water from upland to lower ground. And, other experts contend that the activity of beavers considerably enhances the natural environment and enriches it for many other forms of wildlife, including fish! They also contend that beaver activity improves water quality. As ever the argument is polarised. Yet the tide of opinion in many parts of Britain, seems to be swinging in favour of the reintroduction of beavers.

Furthermore, the fact is that one way or another, like it or not, beavers are already back with us and the conclusions to be drawn from the Argyll based trial, will make no real difference at all to the quite separate and unrelated Perthshire population. A negative conclusion to the Argyll experiment would not change the reality that it’s not much use shutting the stable door now that they are so well established elsewhere!

Country View 20.1.15

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Winter thus far has been largely wet and windy as opposed to cold and frosty but during the past few days it has more boldly asserted itself as winds moved round the compass into the north and the landscape accordingly turned white! Proper winter had arrived! Nevertheless, despite these tumbling temperatures and the nightly, looming presence of Mr Frost, the first indications of new life have already begun to manifest themselves. There, in a hedge bottom, trembling in the icy blast, were to be seen the year’s first new signs of life in the delicate form of snowdrops. For all their pristine delicacy, snowdrops, with their fragile white petals and fine-spun greenery must indeed in essence be extremely hardy. Furthermore they surely induce a ‘smile’ factor, just when we need it!

These first blooms declare a new beginning of the eternal cycle of life, the first heralds of another season of re-birth. Yet, these are inevitably very slow and even cautious beginnings, for true winter may perhaps have only just begun! And, hitherto, there have been precious few hints from our feathered friends that they are awakening to that new dawn. Thus far I had heard little more than a few whispered avian conversations, most of them barely audible.

Only one songster to speak of has thus far, made any kind of impression. Inevitably, that lone voice belongs to redbreast, his sweet little phrases briefly permeating an otherwise silent sylvan setting. I always get the impression at this time of the year that robins have little or no structure to their song. Instead, they seem to blurt out little collections of random notes, almost involuntarily, as if they open their little beaks before letting their brains slip into gear! Yet those erratic bursts of sugar sweet notes are welcome, for they brighten up even the dullest of days … and nights. Indeed, robin’s voice is even more penetrating when he sings us an evening lullaby as darkness descends.

Robins are in truth, enigmatic and perverse little creatures. They may seem all sweetness and light; bright, dewy eyed, alluring with their glowing red breasts, often surprisingly happy to enjoy our close company and of course, to entertain us with their solo music during the short days of the winter months. But they are not quite so endearing when it comes to relationships with their own kindred. Only one robin comes to my bird-table albeit that another came the other day, clearly brandishing a gauntlet!

He perhaps harbours ambitions of sharing the daily provender but the resident redbreast is decidedly singular in every respect. ‘This is my sole territory; trespassers will not be tolerated’ is his message to all other redbreasts. Thus far he reigns supreme, the one and only robin allowed here! Any incursions by such rivals are rebuffed with a ferocity, which is hardly equalled in other avian circles. Thus, there was a brief flurry as the well-entrenched bird flew purposefully but swiftly towards the interloper. Within seconds, only one bird was to be seen. Discretion had, once more, become the better part of valour!

Cock robins simply do not tolerate other cock robins and conflict between rivals is often resolved with remarkable brutality with one of the contenders, should he resist, likely to end up more dead than alive! The little shenanigans between other birds at the feeders are nothing compared with the malice that enters cock robin’s breast should another robin invade his territory. Rivalry between birds of the same species, most noticeably among the male birds, is endemic and clearly evident at the feeders, yet such fall outs are usually brief with basic survival the main consideration. In cock robins, no such restraining feature exists!

Robins therefore are arguably, the most openly belligerent of our more familiar birds. Yet others too have short fuses. My growing flock of house sparrows is constantly living up to that collective description of their kind, for ‘quarrels’ seem to break out constantly. In utter contrast, dunnocks give the distinct impression of being the antithesis of such conflict, always quietly remaining on the periphery, content to feast upon the crumbs whilst others scrap over the scraps! And yet, the humble little dunnock is not quite as genteel as you may think for of all the more familiar garden birds, this is the one that is firmest in its belief that monogamy is not for him!

I have often felt that among the titmice, the great tit above all, exhibits the greatest degree of physical dominance and competitiveness. So, I was not at all surprised that a day or two after seeing my first snowdrops, I was at last to hear a pronouncement that further confirmed the slow revolution, which over the next few weeks and months will inevitably, alter and quicken the rhythms of natural life. The oft-repeated two-tone proclamation of a cock great tit rang out as distinctively as the lone voice of the robin had earlier echoed through the wood. ‘Tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher’, he trumpeted. The message rang out loud and clear – the first real, audible sign of a rising of the sap. Cock great tits are nearly always the first out of the blocks in proclaiming their availability to any hen great tits that care to listen, and the message they promote is that they are of course, ‘the most desirable of mates’!

If there was a lack of real conviction, of stridency, in that first proclamation, it did at least, provide another benchmark in the New Year’s progression. The message was clear - the march towards spring has begun. With the emerging snowdrops, it represented the first chapter in what may well be a saga of great length … or indeed shortness. Who knows? Some say this is destined to be a hard winter but the computers don’t really know, they can only predict. And what that solitary great tit had to say for himself will surely soon I’m sure, be echoed by others. Inevitably rival cocks will respond and in the weeks to come, the air will resonate ever louder with that two-tone statement of intent … from all the airts!

There will be much ritual to undertake in the meantime. And, ambitions will not always be fulfilled. The hen birds, which are of course, the decision-makers, will eventually make their choices of mates, choices which will depend on a variety of factors. The assertive nature for instance, of that ‘tea-cher, tea-cher,’ territorial claim; the nature of the territory a male has claimed; the quality of nesting sites within that territory, even the length and breadth of the black band that dominates his front. But above all, the food resources available for the raising of a family within his chosen territory when that eventuality has to be met, will be regarded as crucial.

That latter assessment, dependent mainly upon the availability of caterpillars, she may not be able to make at this early stage but as their relationship develops, that will become for her a prime requisite. And should his chosen territory prove to be below par in that respect, just when fulfilment seems at hand, she may well abscond to find a better provider elsewhere! Fickle that may seem but it is in essence pragmatic!
So the first signs are there; can spring break free from winter’s grip? Well, there may indeed, be many a slip ‘tween cup and lip!

Country View 13.1.15

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Wild, wild weather provided anything but a warm welcome to the New Year as strengthening, gale-force winds uprooted trees, battered large boughs from them and scattered debris all over the place, to which might be added the threat also of the white stuff always present.

Yet, even after such storms, the birds were still here in number seeking their early morning treats the next day. I could only imagine how difficult it must have been overnight for the assembly of birds including the growing ‘quarrels’ of house sparrows which seemed to have survived the lashing wind, semi-blizzards and driving rain. They must be very determined little characters to cling on so manfully in such hostile conditions with their night time roosts no doubt tossed wildly around like small craft tossed around by enormous waves out at sea. But they survived!

And of course, survival is currently the name of the game. Meanwhile, the local congregation of rooks seems to regard gale force winds as less of a threat and instead, more of a challenge to be met head on, for when the wind gets up, they clearly delight in cocking a snook at conditions in displays which blatantly defy the wind. They race down it and soar up against it, demonstrating flying skills, which are perhaps far in excess of our expectations of such ‘humble’ and commonplace birds.

In stark contrast I watched a heron tenuously making its way towards a local fishing beat, being tossed this way and that by the tearing gusts and therefore charting an extremely erratic course as it courageously battled with the wild conditions. Herons are in fact strong flyers with a very large wing area relative to their extremely light body weight, which of course, makes passage difficult in wild conditions. Indeed, during the reign of England’s infamous King Henry V111, well renowned as a keen hawker, such was the reputation of herons as doughty quarries for the King’s falcons, that they were given the protection of the law. That was probably one of the first pieces of legislation to protect wild birds, albeit that such protection was designed to ensure they could be hunted!

Yet, survival remains the priority for all of us, with successive storms hurtling in from the Atlantic and making life ever more difficult. Out wintering farm livestock is by and large, inured to such winter hazards, protected in part by thick coats, woolly coats in the case of sheep, yet they too have recourse to seek shelter behind walls or trees when the weather pounds in horizontally. Among the hardiest of folk of course are the shepherds who tend the sheep, especially those roaming our wilder moors and glens. And, whilst the survival of their livestock may be the priority in the face of such hostile conditions, some may also feel threatened by the suggestion, now apparently gaining some momentum, that the lynx should be re-introduced to Scotland.

Re-introductions are inevitably, extremely controversial. Indeed, the re-introduction of sea eagles, has raised the temperatures of shepherds, crofters and farmers alike, with claims that this new generation of raptors is responsible for the wide-scale loss of lambs in several parts of Highland Scotland. However, the losses, all too often wildly exaggerated, claimed by some, must be set against the extreme conditions faced by many of our hill sheep, which by the very nature of things, means that lamb mortality can in any case, be abnormally high. 

Some even say that the presence of sea eagles has merely served to provide another excuse for a bad lambing! There can be little doubt that lambs do sometimes fall victim to this mighty predator but it is virtually impossible to discern whether such victims were dead or alive when taken. I have always believed that predators of any kind will always take the easiest option and obviously dead lambs are ‘easy meat’!

With regard to suggestions that the lynx should be restored as part of our natural fauna, this must be set against the historic fact that it has probably been absent from these shores for around fifteen hundred years. Furthermore, its extermination was almost certainly due to its predation upon domestic livestock and the resulting persecution it suffered. Interestingly, the wolf, considerably more universally feared than the lynx, has a much more recent history here. Tradition says that the last wolf in Scotland was famously killed in 1743, although there are those who believe that they may have existed here in small numbers until the 1780s.

Brown bears too once roamed Scotland and probably died out around a thousand years ago. And, the wild boar, another creature once part of Britain’s fauna, whilst exterminated as long ago as the early part of the seventeenth century, is now back with us with a vengeance. Increasing numbers of them are apparently living in the wild all over Britain, having escaped from farms and estates. Only last week we read of the sad death of a motorist in the south when he collided with a wild boar on a motorway, as a consequence of which he went on fatally, to collide with a lorry. And of course, beavers are also back with us, officially in Argyll and unofficially in parts of Perthshire.

Lynx have been recently re-introduced to Switzerland and we are told some small amount of compensation has been paid out to farmers there for losses of sheep attributed to the new generation of lynx. Opinion among experts however, maintains that lynx are essentially creatures of forest where they will prey mainly upon birds, small mammals and deer, which, since the elimination of the wolf have gone forth and multiplied in ever increasing numbers because they have no natural predators now. It is suggested that sheep therefore, are not seriously at risk from forest-based lynx but that instead these ‘big cats’ (around the size of roe deer) would bring a badly needed element of control to the deer population.

Whilst the presence of lynx would certainly enhance the variety of wildlife in Scotland and would as you might expect, naturally excite me, I nevertheless feel bound to add a note of caution. Scotland in the twenty-first century is a very different place compared with the country once inhabited by the likes of wolves, bears and lynx many hundreds of year ago. People and people’s livelihoods have of course, to be considered too and such a re-introduction could be another cause of serious conflict!

The scientists and enthusiasts behind this idea apparently recognise the dangers lynx might pose to farm livestock. They have therefore come up with an ingenious idea of fitting released animals with collars tuned in to GPS. This would flag up any case of such an animal straying on to farmland, or indeed on to such sensitive turf as grouse moors. Then a simple signal could be activated in such a way as to inject the offending animal with a dose of sedative! Theoretically, the sleeping beast could then be apprehended and safely re-located! What’s new, pussy cat? 

Country View 6.1.15

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Yuletide festivities are over for another year. Already, the tinsel of the Christmas festival has faded as now we look forward rather than backwards. As we enter a New Year it is easy to appreciate that whilst in a sense, we are at an ending, at the same time, we are witnessing a beginning. Just before celebrating the birth of the Christ child, we turned a corner as the winter solstice brought us to that major turning point when at last the days ceased to shorten and instead, imperceptibly, began to lengthen. There is plenty of winter to come but at least now we can genuinely begin to look for those signs that a new cycle of renewal will e’er long begin.

However, Mother Nature is understandably cautious and as yet, I have seen little or no sign of real ambition. However, just a day or two into the New Year and already there is talk of conflict with the Government (the one in Westminster) announcing a declaration of war. In this case, the war thank goodness, is not destined to feature human conflict. Rather is the grey squirrel the object of the Government’s displeasure with a declaration that landowners are to be paid hard cash to cull these alien squirrels in order to protect the remaining populations of reds, which in England are now extremely sparse.

Unsurprisingly there are those who are opposed to such a scheme albeit that either the director of Animal Aid has been misquoted or he has got his facts badly wrong in claiming that the grey squirrel is indigenous to these islands. This squirrel is native not to Britain but America from whence it was introduced in 1876, an act I believe in retrospect, of extreme folly on the part of a certain Mr Brocklehurst who brought two pairs of them from America and released them on his estate in Cheshire. Mr Brocklehurst may have been the first to release grey squirrels into Britain but he wasn’t the last … by any means. Such was the ignorance of the likely impact of introducing an alien squirrel to these shores that others followed his lead repeatedly with introductions continuing incredibly into the nineteen thirties. These cute little creatures they thought, would embellish our parks and woodlands. Oh dear!

The first greys to arrive in Scotland were released in 1896 on the shores of Loch Long, their point of origin being Canada. Meanwhile wholesale releases were happening elsewhere in England, mostly in the south with as many as a hundred of them launched upon Richmond in Surrey in 1902. Indeed, it was from the successful breeding among these new residents of southern England that encouraged folk to take youngsters from the south and transplant them in other parts of Britain. This new generation of alien animals included, just after the end of the Great War in 1919, animals released in Dunfermline and then Edinburgh, introductions perhaps instigated by the Local Authorities there.

Clearly conditions here suited grey squirrels admirably and as the evidence above underlines only too clearly, they certainly went forth and multiplied with a vengeance. Indeed, they have continued to multiply at an alarming rate and have become very much the dominant squirrels in this land, forcing the red squirrel into retreat. There are I understand five million grey squirrels at large in the UK compared with a rump of about 120,000 of our native reds. Grey squirrels, considerably larger than their red cousins, are stronger and more aggressive competitors for food sources, forcing red squirrels to retreat before their presence. Furthermore, grey squirrels carry a pox to which they seem immune but which is deadly to red squirrels.

Happily, the northwards march of grey squirrels did not significantly penetrate the Highlands of Scotland, thanks perhaps to vigilance on the part of gamekeepers and foresters and partially to the more difficult weather conditions prevailing in the northern glens. The red squirrel still remains the dominant and in most Highland environments thankfully, the only squirrel present.

Furthermore there has in recent times been present another more natural controlling force, which has in many places in recent years, sent the grey squirrel packing. The increasing population of pine marten now making rapid inroads in many parts of Scotland including this airt, once incidentally, an animal thought to be close to extinction, has been enjoying a new lease of life. Indeed such is the impact made by this arboreal member of the weasel clan that it has virtually transformed the populations of red and grey squirrels. There was a time when populations of grey squirrels were utterly dominant in this part of the world. However, the appearance perhaps a dozen years or so ago, of martens in this neck of the woods, proved to be as big a turning point as that day in late December when days at last begin to lengthen.

I suppose in their previous incarnation, the pine martens once resident in these parts would not have known the grey squirrel at all. The fact is that long before the grey squirrel became established here, the pine marten was literally long gone. Nineteenth century guardians of sporting estates were ruthless in exterminating anything that threatened the game they were so eager to propagate. But the new generation of martens arrived in a world in which not only were they given the protection of the law but in a landscape where there were few reds but vibrant populations of grey squirrels. And, being heavier and less agile, the grey squirrel was a much easier prey for martens to catch and when caught clearly made a more sumptuous meal into the bargain. Accordingly, this new manifestation of martens has decimated the grey squirrel population and in response, the red squirrels have gradually filled the vacuum.

Of course pine marten also pursue red squirrels but the extra agility and lightness of reds gives them a good chance of escaping the jaws of martens and all the evidence is now pointing to a rising population of this, our native squirrel. One of the reasons given for the Government’s decision to promote the cull of grey squirrels is to protect the forestry industry from the damage grey squirrels cause to young trees, on the face of it, a commercial reason. The director of Animal Aid however, suggests that the damage attributed to grey squirrels in this respect, is exaggerated.

He might be well advised to examine our rural history, which tells of the creation of ‘squirrel clubs’ in many parts of the country, long before the arrival of grey squirrels. These were organisations created to control red squirrels … because of the damage they were doing to young trees! However, the Government’s record on such issues does not necessarily stand up too well to examination. They continue to pursue a policy of culling badgers … which clearly neither works nor serves to reduce the incidence of bovine TB.

But, if we want to keep our red squirrels and eliminate the alien grey as an interloper then it may indeed be a case of good riddance!

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods