Grey Clouds – Feb 2018

Hello everyone! This time last year we were experiencing the driest ten months in southern England in over a hundred years. The recurring themes throughout the scribbles of ’17 was the lack of rain, the shrinking pond and the effects of drought stress on a number of trees in our little reserve. As we are all too aware, the last two months have given us copious rain, sleet and even a few flakes of snow. This has led to our footpaths turning into mires and fields becoming water-logged; our pond is close to being fully charged for the first time in over a year.

Despite the wet and chilly conditions, the woods are full of life. The Feathered Folk are waking us up at a barely respectable time before daylight begins and insects are dancing in the rays of a somewhat timid spring sun. Foxes can be heard throughout the night as they perform their combative mating rituals and rabbits and moles are busy creating a labyrinthine series of subterranean tunnels. I had a first-time in the life of a nature-watcher experience the other day when I was fortunate to watch a molehill having the final few scoops of soil added to it by a busy little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat.  Perhaps not everyone’s cup of chai, but it made my day!

Throughout the reserve there is ample evidence that another creature has been enjoying Ma Nature’s bounty. Several rocks, logs and patches of bare ground are littered with the remnants of chestnut and acorn feasts. It is of course, that acrobatic invader, the Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

The Wildlife Trusts quote a UK population figure of 2.5 million as opposed to a mere 140,000, or less, of our native Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris). Clearly the poor Red is not living up to its Latin moniker and is in real danger of coming to the end of 10,000 years of inhabiting these islands, restricted as it is to a few areas throughout the UK. The blame for the demise of the Red is being set squarely on the shoulders of its larger, Grey, American cousin, or rather the shoulders of the landowners who imported it as an estate, fashion accessory 140 years ago. Not only is the Grey bigger and more robust than our native squirrel it has the added advantage of being able to digest seeds with a high tannin content more efficiently. This means they can gnaw away on acorns to their heart’s content, as we have seen in QW, and are better suited to populating deciduous woodland than the Red who, despite eating a variety of shoots, seeds, berries and fungi, rely heavily on Pine Nuts in their diet.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as our home-grown squirrels putting up a sturdy fight in their corner, they have the added disadvantage of being the victims in an all too familiar scenario. Just as we have seen the Signal Crayfish spread the Crayfish Plague throughout our native population and the proliferation of the damaging P. ramorum fungus via the invasive Rhododendron ponticum, we are now witnessing the effect of a disease carried by the Grey Squirrel. Squirrel Poxvirus is a particularly nasty strain, usually fatal to Red Squirrels who, unlike many of the Greys, do not carry the necessary antibodies to combat the disease.

The virus has become an increasing problem in both Scotland and Wales, the last strongholds of the Red in the UK. Seven years ago, an outbreak of the disease annihilated 90% of the Red Squirrel population in Northern Ireland while England is rapidly losing the Red Squirrel altogether. Last year, in the Lake District, an isolated group of thirty was reduced to twelve by the virus. Even on the Isle of Wight, where it should be a simple task to keep the Greys away, the population has dropped dramatically.

Clearly Conservationists are concerned about squirrel numbers with a view to redressing the balance between the two species. Foresters, however, have had a long running battle against both the Grey and the Red. It was our native squirrel that was targeted by the Highland Squirrel Club, established in 1903 to rectify the problem of severe bark-stripping damage to trees. By 1946 the club had killed an astonishing 102,900 Red Squirrels, paying out bounties when the tails were produced as proof of kill. The irony of this situation is that the previous two centuries had seen the squirrel driven to the point of extinction due to loss of woodland habitat and many parts of Scotland were restocked from English and European populations.

These days it is the Grey Squirrel that is being targeted. The Forestry Commission estimates that the two species can live together for around twenty years before the Reds disappear from the area. The UK Squirrel Accord, a group of around thirty timber industry and conservation organisations, was set up by HRH Prince Charles to bring about a concerted approach to controlling the Grey Squirrel and protecting both our native Red Squirrel and woodlands.

Whether you love them or loathe them, the squirrel, of whatever species, is an animal to be admired. With the exception of the Polar Regions and the dryer deserts, they are found across the world. In his theory of evolution, The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin described the variations found within the Squirrel Family to demonstrate how gradations in structure, as he termed it, are essential for different species to survive in their various habitats. The Family Sciuridae is made up of several small to medium sized rodents, including Flying Squirrels, Chipmunks, Prairie Dogs and of course our familiar Tree Squirrels.

Next time you see one in the woods, take time to admire its speed and agility which are truly bewildering. Watch it as it defies gravity and walks down a tree trunk head first, a feat carried out by rotating its hind feet allowing the claws to grip the bark. Marvel as two of them have a game of chase through the woodland canopy, confidently running along the thinnest branches and leaping from tree to tree.

So, there it is, a brief look at yet another ecological disaster of our own making. Yet the main players are here through no fault of their own and they are certainly part of the story of our little reserve.  There may be grey clouds dominating the skies at present, but it is the grey cloud sweeping across the countryside that is both a cause for concern and great wonder.

It was a squirrel, it was a squirrel, a wild female nutcracker, a jumper, a climber, and her bushy tail was famous in all the forests. This squirrel, this squirrel was always travelling, always searching, it couldn’t talk about this, not because it lacked the power of speech but because it had absolutely no time.
Animal Fables – Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Put me right at pgcrow@yahoo.com

Paul Johnson


Another part of the story of Quarry Wood was put into place in December when both Lorna and I were awarded the Crowhurst Community Award by the Parish Council. It was very gratifying to have TQW appreciated as we enter our tenth year. The fifteen years that I have been Warden of our little reserve have been some of the most instructive and enjoyable times I can remember. The fine line between community space and nature reserve is a tricksy one to walk but I have a marvellous team to call upon and it is their hard work which is really being recognised by the award. Many, many thanks to Ian, Will, Lorna, Jill, Fionn and our visiting expert and Moth man, Ralph.

Bravo everyone.

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Image credits:
Original Quarry Wood photography: Lorna Neville; img 4: Grey Squirrel by likeaduck, used under Creative Commons License 2.0; img 5: Red Squirrel by Derek Parker, used under CC2.0; img 6: My friend the Grey Squirrel by Rachid H, used under CC2.0; img 7: Grey Squirrel by Romain Cera, used under CC2.0.

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