Scouting for squirrels
Last Saturday, 21st January, was Squirrel Appreciation Day. Who knew? Not me, that’s for sure, until it was mentioned in passing on Winterwatch, the BBC’s seasonal wildlife programme. I think the presenter referred to it as Red Squirrel Appreciation Day, because – and let’s be brutally honest about this – nobody here gives much thought to grey squirrels. Reds, however, are an iconic species in the UK, universally loved and widely regarded as a national treasure.
Grey squirrels are everywhere, impossible to miss and, for some, difficult to love. Red squirrels, however, are altogether more elusive. Brownsea Island, located in Poole Harbour on the south coast, is one of the few places in England where a sighting of red squirrels is pretty much guaranteed. Also guaranteed, if you visit at the right time, is a sighting of Boy Scouts, a reflection of the island’s special place in the history of the scouting movement.
The origins of Squirrel Appreciation Day lie in the USA. In 2001, wildlife rehabilitation specialist Christy Hargrove founded National Squirrel Appreciation Day in Asheville, North Carolina. Her aim was to encourage positive attitudes towards, and practical support for, her local squirrels. It’s perhaps ironic, therefore, that it is American squirrels that are responsible for the collapse of our own native red squirrel population.
It’s difficult to believe that here in the UK grey squirrels were once regarded as an exotic species. Some wealthy landowners thought it would be a great idea to brighten up their estates with wildlife superstars from across the Atlantic, and grey squirrels seemed like the ideal candidates. Adaptable, resourceful and tougher than the native reds, the greys soon began to out-compete them. Worse still, the greys were carriers of a disease – squirrel pox – which did them no harm, but was lethal to the reds.
The first recorded release of grey squirrels in the UK was in 1876, at Henbury Park in Cheshire. They thrived, as did other greys that were released elsewhere. Before long, the red squirrel population was in steep decline as greys spread rapidly across the country. Today, Brownsea Island, which is protected from a grey invasion by the waters of Poole Harbour, is one of only a couple of places in southern England where red squirrels still run wild.
Brownsea Island is tiny, just 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long and 0.75 miles (1.2 km) wide. It consists of around 500 acres (200 ha) of woodland and heathland, and a brackish lagoon. The island is owned by the National Trust, and much of it is actively managed for the benefit of nature. As well as squirrels, the island is home to a wide variety of bird species, including dunlin, kingfishers, common and sandwich terns and oystercatchers. A major conservation project is currently underway to improve habitats for wildlife, focussed on woodland management, heathland restoration and the removal of invasive plant species.
The island is also notable for having played an important part in the development of the International Scouting Movement. In August 1907 Robert Baden-Powell, its founder, held a week-long camp there to test out his ideas. The experiment was deemed a success, and the following year he published his seminal book Scouting for Boys, thereby kick-starting a ground-breaking organisation which thrives to this day.
Boy Scouts and Girl Guides continue to camp on the island, but none were evident when we took a trip out to Brownsea a few years ago. But that didn’t bother us, as the purpose of our visit was to go scouting for squirrels. We were not disappointed. The red squirrels for which Brownsea is justly famous were present in large numbers, and not at all camera-shy…I guess the feeders, well-stocked with tasty and nutritious nuts, probably had a lot to to with that. Mrs P snapped 335 pics of squirrels that day, some of which are featured in this post. Oh, the joys of digital photography!
Over the years we’ve been lucky to watch red squirrels in several parts of the UK where they are still gamely hanging on, but nowhere have we ever had such wonderful views as those we enjoyed that day on Brownsea Island. I think it’s probably time for a return visit!