On a recent trip to the mainland I was enjoying an ice-cream in the delightful Abbey Gardens, Bury St Edmunds. What a lovely urban park, and how well maintained! Whilst we were sitting in the sun and musing, we saw some a grey squirrel bounding across the grass. And then another.
In a moment, I was thrown into confusion. I hadn’t seen a grey squirrel for years, although when I lived on the mainland it wasn’t unusual. They’re cute, and entertaining. Kids in the park like to chase them, and old ladies like to give them nuts. But on the Island, the sight of the humble grey squirrel has a very different implications. In what will probably become England’s last grey squirrel-free county, the sight of one of the little grey creatures provides a very different reaction.
The Isle of Wight has a healthy and stable population of red squirrels. It’s the only population of the reds in the UK that isn’t threatened by the grey squirrels which were introduced in the 20th century, and have been spreading inexorably ever since. Vast sums have been spent, and great efforts expended to keep the mainland greys from spreading north. In the end, they will fail – at least in England, and maybe eventually in Scotland. But there is little activity needed to keep the reds safe on the Island. So long as we can keep the greys from becoming established, there will still be a small but healthy population of native British red squirrels. These days, they make a genuine contribution to the Island’s tourist industry – go and enjoy the red squirrel hide at Parkhurst Forest, see the reds playing at Shanklin Chine or Robin Hill, or visit the hidden hide at Alverstone Mead nature reserve.
Spotting a grey squirrel on the Island would be a very serious matter. About ten years ago one was found dead, by a roadside. A post-mortem suggested it was a female that had recently given birth. A huge hunt was on to find any other grey squirrels – volunteers combed woodlands, set (humane) traps, laid sticky hair-tubes out to sample the hairs of any passing animals, and much more. Professional trappers were brought in from the mainland, and a publicity campaign was mounted. Every single sighting (and there were many) was followed up and investigated. Thankfully, not a single grey squirrel was found. Nor has any breeding population been seen since. Where the original corpse came from was never clear — maybe it was dead when it arrived, and someone threw it away.
But we are still vigilant. Volunteers still check out any sightings, and just occasionally there are credible accounts that need further investigation. The fact that no grey squirrels have yet become established on the Island suggests that they probably can’t get here under their own power – and that even if they do, they might not automatically be successful. So there is good reason to think that continued watchfulness will indeed enable us to keep our beloved red squirrel for a while longer yet.