Saving Squirrel Nutkin
I admire Prince Charles, the heir to Britain’s the throne, for his support of environmental causes, his views on architecture and his monumental patience in waiting for his accession. Unfortunately I can’t muster up much enthusiasm for his latest initiative.
His Royal Highness doesn’t like grey squirrels. The little creatures that dart here and there at the bottom of my garden belong to an invasive species. They strip bark from broad-leaf trees, making the trees vulnerable to pests and parasites. They carry a nasty virus that they transmit to our native red squirrels. As a result there are 3.5 million of them, and only about 170,000 red ones still hanging in there around remote parts of the country.
They were first introduced from America to the United Kingdom by Victorian landowners, who little anticipated the consequences. The same landowners who brought rhododendron plants from the hills of the Himalayas – another species that dominates my back yard in leafy Surrey. Nature’s way of paying us back for our nefarious colonising, you might think.
The plan that Prince Charles is endorsing is to build thousands of little traps full of Nutella laced with a contraceptive. The squirrels will not die. They will merely stop reproducing. In five years, according to the government boffins who have come up with this chemical condom, the population will decline by 90 per cent.
Certainly that would be a more benign method of reducing the grey squirrel population than previous efforts to dissolve their innards with warfarin. And definitely less creepy than the suggestion I once received from a council worker who came to our home to advise us how to get rid of a squirrel that had burrowed its way into our attic and was busy chewing cables. He suggested I buy an air rifle and take pot shots at the little bugger when it appeared on the rooftop.
Leaving aside the thought that for some members of the population, buying up air rifles to kill small animals might become an addictive pleasure not confined to the slaughtering of squirrels, I can’t help thinking that we’ve been here before.
Aren’t we just a little guilty of moral hypocrisy when we talk about a “kind” way of reducing populations? Kind, as in China’s one-child policy, Indira Ghandi’s sterilisation programme and, horror of horrors, Hitler’s forced sterilisation of physical and mental defectives?
Unless you’re a fervent animal rights activist, you’d probably say no – human life is sacred. Wiping out a few million vermin is not the same. You would definitely take that view if you believed that as the top species, everything on the planet – beast, plant or microbe – is there for our sustenance, use and enjoyment. If it’s OK to clear a field of weeds so that we can cultivate wheat, how can it be wrong to get rid of a few million grey squirrels so that our broad-leaved trees can continue to decorate our countryside, and we can enjoy the sight of cuddly Squirrel Nutkin regaining his old habitat?
But I’m still not convinced. After 90% of the greys have taken their medicine and died of old age without further offspring, what then? The wheat field, if unattended, quickly regains its weeds. Do we keep lashing out the Nutella until the squirrels finally disappear? I doubt if that final solution will come to pass. Even if a small enclave remains, you can be sure they will go forth and multiply. Also, can we be sure that Nutkin will return? What if something even more destructive than the grey squirrel moves in to fill the vacuum?
I fear that the damage is done. The greys are with us for ever. Just as the snapping turtle has invaded Italy and Asian carp have made it to the Great Lakes after decades of effort to stop them, the squirrels have reconfigured the environment.
Much as I understand a desire to reset the clock to an age when Nutkin roamed freely, for me it’s a foolish aspiration. Almost as foolish as the desire to recreate a Britain without the current crop of human immigrants. How far back do we go? Do we look to restore our wildlife population to where it was in the days of industrial grime – the last time the reds had ascendancy, or way back to the Ice Age, when mammoths roamed through Godalming? Same goes for the humans, for that matter.
I’d far rather we spent the money protecting our trees against the parasites that are killing them, and helping more endangered species to survive and thrive without destroying competitors.
We should rejoice in the miraculous dexterity of our squirrels, enjoy the glorious flowering of our rhododendrons and welcome the ridiculous loquacity of our green parakeets.
We should also treasure the hard-working, courteous immigrants who contribute so much to our economy and enrich our culture. Biodiversity should not be confined to the animal kingdom.
As for the poor old squirrels, the damage they cause is but a zillionth of the devastation we humans have wreaked since the industrial revolution. Perhaps we should be considering liberal doses of Nutella ourselves.
And anyway, did the greys destroy their original habitat? Try visiting the United States to find out. If you’re allowed in, that is.