Monday 19 February 2018

A secret garden for a cheeky grey squirrel

Forager: A grey squirrel looks for food during the winter months. Photo: Mark Maxwell
Forager: A grey squirrel looks for food during the winter months. Photo: Mark Maxwell

Joe Kennedy

The little furry animal came over the top of a high wall as viewed from a window in the awakening dawn.

The fluttering of a magpie pair had caught my eye. They had disappeared from this vista having killed or frightened off all the songbirds. The grey squirrel was a great surprise, an animal never before seen by me from this old house. It cheekily crossed a road from where two sturdy alders stand on the bank of a small river.

It slipped into a garden from where it found peace and plenty via a passage to a country of tangled growth and orchard branches bending with bramleys.

Things began to fall into place. The garden here has been overwhelmed by strawberries, raspberries, currants, gooseberries and vines in a tangle of growth, though usually yielding some fruit in a patient search.

This year there were no signs of berries, and bird- tables, when they were attended to in the spring, had daily been cleared of seeds and mixes, and not by birds alone. I had thought of rats and mice, though cats prowled as did a fox or two. Now I feel this has been a secret garden for a squirrel. It is a pleasant thought.

Squirrels are attractive animals. Yeats was fond of them. "Come play with me," he pleaded in To a Squirrel at Kyle-na-no'. "Why should you run through the shaking tree/As though I had a gun/To strike you dead?"

Frank O'Connor was photographed patting the head of a furry fellow at a writers' conference in the US in the 1950s. Not to be outdone, as it were, my daughter photographed me having a one-way conversation with a grey in Harvard Yard in Boston. Squirrels, grey and black, are widespread in public places in America.

Yeats' squirrel, though, was probably a red. His poem is from The Wild Swans at Coole (1919); the American greys did not reach Ireland until 1911, though they spread rapidly. That year, Lady Granard released a pair she had brought over from England on her estate at Castle Forbes in Co Longford. (Aside: I once travelled in her Rolls, a delightfully compact two-door vehicle, then owned by the late journalist John Healy, described by a pal at the time as the writer of the "Rolls Royce of political columns"!)

Greys quickly multiplied and began to take over reds' territory, overwhelming the smaller animals. They spread outwards from Longford to 20 counties over the last century, following natural food trails, nut-seeking, tree bark stripping for sugars, birds' nest thieving and, having gobbled the hazels, beech mast and pine cones, scoffing green acorns which the reds cannot digest.

Greys will forage vegetables, eat flowers and fruit and perform circus acrobatics at hanging bird feeders. But now, pine martens are giving them a hard time, zapping their ranks and so allowing the reds a comeback break.

The bigger greys spend more time on the ground and are easier for martens to stalk. They are also reacting to a predator they did not evolve with which may be causing a stress-related breeding hiccup. So the reds are returning as are the martens, once decimated by pelt-hunters. Mother Nature has her checks and balances.

Sunday Independent

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