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Thin grey line for native reds

THE poet W B Yeats was fond of them. Ted Hughes, who knew all of Yeats' work by heart, preferred foxes. We won't go there now. But they both loved creatures of the countryside. Yeats' favourite, apart from Iseult Gonne's cat Minnaloushe, was a squirrel -- attractive, sparkly, sitting up in a just-nibbling posture, fluffy red-and-white beneath a tree, or opportunistically peeping down from a leafy perch.

"Come play with me," he pleaded. "Why should you run/ Through the shaking tree/ As though I'd a gun/ To strike you dead?"

O dead, indeed! And didn't I, with gun, just do that once, not at Yeats' Kyle-na-no but in the Meath of minor poets, some youthful versifiers of the time who later made names for themselves in music, media and publishing.

They lived in squirrel country but, even then, the native red, now gone entirely, was rare and the cheeky grey, the American cousin, was everywhere along the wooded Boyne valley. Being poets they didn't shoot at the creatures. When once I did in the dim and distant past the victim's chattering brothers appeared in the trees like a host of marmosets to rain their curses on me.

I got rid of the gun many years ago. But hunters may be officially encouraged to take pot shots at grey squirrels these days they are so profuse. They are damaging forestry and, more importantly, their activities are causing devastation among the dwindling population of reds. The National Council for Forest Research and Development in its recent Irish Squirrel Survey has found that the greys have driven out the reds from Meath and Westmeath and in Wicklow and Wexford have colonised an additional 50km of countryside in 10 years. Survey maps show the greys occupying almost all of the eastern half of the country to the midlands with the reds clinging on in mid and south Munster and west Ulster-Connacht.

We can blame the Victorians or, rather, post-Victorians, for this, particularly Lady Granard. She brought a couple of pairs to Castleforbes in 1912 or thereabouts. And being Americans they never looked back.

But, you say, we can still walk through woodlands and never see one. Then again, here and there, a new garden visitor makes an appearance. It is rather different in England. In one London suburb I have watched, fascinated, their endless activities.The householders are not amused. They have to take costly precautions to keep the pests out of roof spaces: they chew through fascia boards, structural timbers, power and TV cables.

In Britain, the agricultural ministry has a programme underway to develop a contraceptive pill for greys. But this could hit reds also and as squirrels hoard their food it won't be easy to get them to take the medicine.

Foresters are acutely aware of the damage greys cause to saplings as they chew their way through the bark of sycamore, beech, hornbeam and oak. In the battle there is a lethal device in use called a Kania spring trap (www.magnumtrap.com) which is placed about 12ft up a tree and baited with peanut butter.

Yeats knew nothing of this -- and wasn't he happier in his twilight reveries? All he wanted to do to the little furry creatures was "to scratch your head / And let you go."