We’re up at Deer Lake for the summer, in the lakeside house we were lucky to get a few years back, on the edge of the Catskills Mountains, about a three hour drive from downtown New York and a welcome escape from the torrid heat of the city at this time of the year.
One of the delights of being here is to savour the wildlife which is still, despite the best efforts of the National Rifle Association, incredibly bountiful. In Europe we never see a deer except in a zoo or grazing in the parkland of some landed gentry’s mansion but up here at the eponymously named Deer Lake you have to be careful when you’re driving in case one jumps out of the forest in front of your car. In Ireland roadkill is a squashed mouse or dog but here it’s likely to be, sadly, an entire deer carcass.
There’s a black bear that lives in the nearby forest and while I’ve never seen it, others have, and we did come across evidence a couple of years back that it wanders near the homes around the lake looking for food. Two years ago, Joan hung some dried corns on the tree outside our front door, an American tradition at Halloween time, and one morning we found they had been ripped down and the bark of the tree was lacerated with the hungry bear’s claw marks.
We discovered later that the tree was diseased and it had to be cut down. In a small hole in the top of the stump a family of chipmunks made their home and every now and then we will open the door to see one perched on the edge. They have this amazing ability to stay completely still for minutes at time, a trick they doubtless developed to fool a potential predator. Until I came here the only chipmunks I had ever seen were in movie cartoons.
As I write this a rabbit is crouched in the middle of the lawn chewing away at daisies or whatever. He or she lives in a bank of bushes at the edge of the property where it meets the lake and I first noticed it one evening three years ago as it stealthily crept out to feed. With the passage of time and the realisation that we mean it no harm, its forays have become longer and bolder.
Birds are everywhere, some of them, like the Baltimore Oriole, simply gorgeous in their bright yellow plumage. Humming birds arrive when the heat rises, Kingfishers in the autumn and always there’s the thump of a woodpecker somewhere, pecking away at a tree to get at the termites eating its innards. The presence of a woodpecker is a sure sign of a tree in trouble. Butterflies in colours I could never have imagined and Dragonflies, so big and of such varied hues that they could have flown right out of Pan’s Labyrinth, glide around the garden and on the edge of the lake.
Yesterday, however, I saw an animal that not only had I never, ever seen before but actually thought was extinct. It flashed across the lawn, a cinnamon-stained streak, taking short rests by each tree as its spied out the terrain in front of it before leaping across the tiny creek at the edge of the garden into the wilderness beyond. It took me a moment or two to realise what it was: a red squirrel.
I had never encountered anything but grey squirrels and the story that I had been told was that they had made their way somehow to Europe from America and made the red squirrel if not extinct then so rare it might as well be. But I could never understand how that had happened; how could one squirrel drive another out of existence?
But once I saw the red squirrel the answer was obvious. The red squirrel was small and lean but nervous and shy; the grey squirrel is much larger and, in my experience, a brazen creature. I could imagine the grey squirrel bullying the red squirrel out of the best feeding and nesting areas, terrifying it and eventually starving it, if not out of existence then into a fearful minority.
That’s what bullies do. We’ve all been bullied at one time or another; it’s a hideous experience and it leaves a hatred that is impossible to quench. But the red squirrel darting across our lawn was evidence that bullies do not always get everything their own way. The red squirrel has survived and the measure of that triumph is the beauty of the creature and an allure that the grey squirrel can never match; after all it is grey.
Grey squirrels were brought to England deliberately by men in the 19th century. The reason they’ve taken over so successfully is because they aren’t as reclusive as our native reds, so when we humans chop down forests and build housing estates and parks, the greys will stay, the reds move on, heading ever further north. Also the greys have larger litters than the reds, so are more prolific. So the greys don’t actually ‘chase’ or bully the red away at all. The main reason for the red squirrels decline in Britain is man’s interference, which is to blame for most ecological problems in our life.
Reds are endangered in Britain, but they aren’t nearly extinct – yet.
There are lots of them in northern England and Scotland and efforts are being made to help keep them safe and keep the greys out.
And even though there are currently 4 5 week old baby reds in my bedroom, which I am handraising, as a result of Hurricane Katia blowing their drey out its tree, I don’t blame the grey squirrels for that and still would rather have a grey than no squirrel at all.