Sunday 18 February 2018

Good time to go squirrel watching in the woods

Grey Squirrels are able to exploit several different food sources.
Grey Squirrels are able to exploit several different food sources.

From now on is a good time of year to go squirrel watching in the woods as the seasonal abundance of food coupled with falling autumn leaves makes these animals easier to see.

Coat colour varies in our two species so length of ear tufts rather than coat colour is the best guide to identification at this time of year: ear tufts are long in Red Squirrels and are negligible in Grey Squirrels. Grey Squirrels have colonised much of the island of Ireland and we are led to believe that all of these animals originated from a small number of individuals released at a wedding party at Castle Forbes, Co Longford, in 1911.

The squirrels were reportedly a wedding present from the Duke of Buckingham. The exact number of squirrels released is uncertain but it appears to have been more than six and less than twelve. They were housed in a wicker hamper and were released on the lawn after the wedding breakfast to amuse the assembled quests. Once the hamper was opened the squirrels very wisely took off across the lawn to the safety of the adjoining woodlands where they made themselves at home. And now, just over one hundred years later the descendants of those individuals have colonised most of the island or Ireland.

The Castle Forbes story is oft repeated and while it is possible that there was just that single introduction it is also possible that there were other introductions from Britain that were not reported. No doubt genetic studies will, in due course, bring scientific clarity as to the origin or origins of our Grey Squirrels.

Grey Squirrels were also deliberately introduced to Britain from their native range in the forests of the eastern states of North America. Acorns and Beech and Hazel nuts in broadleaved woodlands and pine cones in forestry plantations are favourite foods but like other successful colonisers Grey Squirrels are able to exploit several different food sources.

I once saw one sitting in a litter basket in a park licking ice cream off a discarded wrapper. They enter gardens to eat flowers and buds and to raid bird tables. They enter orchards and avail of fruit in autumn. They have been known to raid root crops on farms. And they damage trees by stripping off bark to get at the sugar-rich sap wood underneath. Like the Brown Rat, the Grey Squirrel scores a 'Most Unwanted' rating among our invasive aliens.

Wexford People

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