What absolutely fabulous, beautiful animals – but unfortunately in any future life I don’t want to become one, I don’t like nuts. However, in the real world now, I believe that the red squirrel should become Britain’s national animal. England’s choice of a lion for some sporting events can be understood historically – but let’s live in the here and now – the red squirrel is beautiful, but its plight brings home the message that the environment is important and what better way to make people aware of today’s problems than by introducing them to the red squirrel.
I saw my first red squirrels in my early teens when two of my uncles had a shoot in the Breckland (the Norfolk/Suffolk border) on forest land owned by the Forestry Commission. There were many red squirrels at that time – what a pleasure. My pleasure turned to anger one day when the “guns” and beaters were resting under a large oak tree and one of the guns suddenly aimed above us and shot – a red squirrel tumbled down dead. “I thought it was a grey”, he said – if that was true he should have gone to Specsavers and he certainly should not have been carrying a gun. His colleagues were absolutely furious I am glad to say – but fury and humiliation did not bring the squirrel back to life.
My next big squirrel memory is from the Breckland again many years later. I was presenting a countryside programme for Anglia TV; it was so good that I have forgotten its name. Under the great producer, Bill Smith we filmed a feature on a group of scientists re-introducing red squirrels to the Thetford Forest? A good idea? Yes – but appallingly carried out. It is one of the reasons why I do not always believe scientists. Grey squirrels had not been removed from the area and sadly grey squirrels carry “squirrel pox” which is virtually harmless to greys but fatal to reds. Consequently the beautiful, healthy red squirrels transported in from Kielder Forest caught squirrel pox from the greys and quickly died. It was such a waste and was quite disgraceful in my view. So am I sceptical about some aspects of science and scientists? I most certainly am.
But – I have happy memories of red squirrels too. In my early twenties, with little money and an old car – a geriatric Hillman Minx – I drove up to the Scottish Highlands hoping to see red squirrels and ospreys. Money was so tight that I slept in car – now in my early ‘seventies I am almost back to the same situation – never mind. I woke up on a cold early dawn – what a commotion – red squirrels were everywhere and chasing one another in dizzy circles up and down the trunks of Scots pines right next to the car. Only one word can describe it – wonderful.
Arguably my most important red squirrel encounters came in 2011 or 2012. A tremendous lady, Alison Mountain, was considering giving the Countryside Restoration Trust her farm, on the edge of the Ashdown Forest – a stunningly beautiful place – and the bluebells are probably flowering as you read this – almost unbelievable.
Well, on the way to see Alison, I would pass a place that struck me as “different” – the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey – only just – very close to the West Sussex border.
One day out of curiosity I stopped at the Centre; what an amazing and pleasant surprise. I met David Mills – a farmer, who had turned his farm into the British Wildlife Centre – it was a Livingstone/Stanley moment and we became good friends instantly. David took me into his fantastic walk-through red squirrel enclosure – what an experience – brilliant. I had red squirrels hanging from my jacket, diving into my pockets looking for hazelnuts; it was one of the most memorable animal experiences I have had. I am pleased to say that David is now building a number of walk-through red squirrel enclosures – the one due for Kew Gardens sounds very special.
This meeting with David and his red squirrels then led to a very cunning plan. Islands are one of the safest refuges for endangered species. So that set us thinking and squirrel expert Dr Craig Shuttleworth carried out a survey for us on Tresco Island in the Isles of Scilly; it sounded almost perfect, with no grey squirrels, too many exotic pines but it had promise. We spoke to the Duchy of Cornwall, the owner, to Robert Dorian Smith, the tenant, to Mike Nelhams, the Curator of Tresco Abbey Gardens and to the Royal Navy Air Squadron at Culdrose in Cornwall to see if they could drop twenty young red squirrels off at Tresco while on a training flight. They could – they did and what a success that has been – the squirrels like it; visitors love them – so far so good.