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Squirrel Nutkin hangs on

Almost everyone has read or heard of Beatrix Potter’s famous character Peter Rabbit. The tales of his adventures, first published in 1903, are delightful to read and the illustrations are timeless. But in addition to Peter, the occasionally hapless lead character in these tales, there were a long list of other animal characters. One of my favorites, because I am so fond of squirrels, was Squirrel Nutkin.

Squirrel Nutkin is an English red squirrel and in recent years, this quiet, rather shy creature, has had some tough times. Indeed, this uniquely English animal is facing near extinction on his own British Isles. The culprit, alas, has been our own beloved American Gray Squirrel. The kind we have here in the Northern Neck. But much like the British in World War II, the red squirrel has hung on despite the odds, and his survival, though not assured, finally has a note of promise.

I first wrote about the fate of the British Red Squirrel in 2009. It was a nice article, but I wasn’t ready for the flood of comments. Several people took offense to my blaming the more aggressive American Gray Squirrel for Squirrel Nutkin’s fate, and one writer, from Scotland, who reads this paper on-line, offered a learned explanation on the nature of invasive species. Alas, as much as it was hard to accept at first, it was my beloved American gray, a native here in Virginia, who was the invader.

The whole, long, sad story of Squirrel Nutkin’s retreat began in 1890 when an English Nobleman brought a few gray squirrels home from America. They were pets and he showed them off, but after a while, he decided to release them. At which point, they went forth and multiplied. The turnabout was, by biological standards, amazingly fast. In 1900, there were probably three to five million red squirrels in England and Scotland. They are a shy creature, relatively small, and very attractive. The British loved them, but these cute little creatures weren’t ready, and alas couldn’t compete with the gray squirrels which are larger and more aggressive. That, of course, wouldn’t necessarily have spelled Squirrel Nutkin’s demise. There is probably plenty for all the squirrels to eat in the English countryside. The problem was that the gray squirrel carried the parapoxvirus, a disease to which it was immune, but the red squirrel was not.

During the past fifty years the red squirrel has become a thing of the past in southern England, a rarity in northern England, and only hanging on, in Scotland. To help the poor little fellow the Scot’s have established a series of red squirrel refuges. Still, their numbers, once in the millions, are now just a few hundred thousand. But, sometimes, Mother Nature, often unforgiving, unexpectedly provides the underdog with an edge. The Red Squirrel, after generations of die offs and gradual retreat, seems to be developing a resistance to the virus carried by the American gray squirrel. This is a recent thing. According to the British forest service and various naturalist organizations, there is evidence that the English red squirrel might not be doomed after all. Enough red squirrels have gotten the virus and survived that some of their offspring have a resistance to it.  If they can develop a population wide defense against the virus then a modest comeback is possible. That’s still a big “if,” but it offers much more hope for their future than they had just a few years ago.  

Invasive species, as you can see, are nothing new, but in Squirrel Nutkin’s case, this lovely symbol of England, may, thanks to a little help from Mother Nature, be able to hang on after all. I suspect Beatrix Potter, and all of her animal friends, from Peter Rabbit himself to Jemima Puddle-Duck, would have liked that.

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