“This is a tale about a tail – and a tail that belonged to a little red squirrel, and his name was Nutkin”.
Many of us as tiny tots were reared on it, and it set our sights on the Arcadia that once existed in our forests and fields when Beatrix Potter so accurately observed the fauna and flora of the UK back in 1903.
She was no sentimentalist, though. Her text was for the tiny tots of the time, but her paintings were punchy and accurate to a single hair from her camelhair brush.
Their expressions have hardly been matched again – just look at that on the face of the owl after it had tailed Nutkin so horribly.
Many times I have seen that look when a tawny owl connected with its prey.
But as early as 1876, Nutkin really did have trouble ahead – when its cousins arrived from America with the pox.
Nutkin now lives precariously on the edge in places like the Cairngorms and Brownsea Island.
The grey has not only
acquired unlimited living space in every kind of wood, park, garden you can name but 83 per cent of the vote.
Yes – a recent survey shows that only17 per cent of people think it should be controlled.
These no doubt are those backwoodsmen like myself who are insensitive to the joys of theme-park Disneyfication of the environment.
Most people see no reason why deer should be controlled either.
Yet both species are destroying our forests and woods with uncontrolled bark stripping.
Deer have also taken out the shrub layer in forests that many birds such as nightingales need as nesting habitat.
They have also been one of the main factors in the spread of ticks, which can give humans a lethal dose of Lyme’s disease.
Grey squirrels have helped to destroy our mistle thrushes among many other bird species.
But people may have to change their opinions about animals that are too cute to cull.
Biodiversity 2020 sets to reverse the fortunes of invasive species such as the grey squirrel which threaten the integrity of the countryside. But let’s return to Nutkin and her inventor for a moment.
Of course the Victorians and Edwardians were busily destroying Arcadia, too.
They shot and stuffed avocets, bitterns, bearded tits, red kites, marsh harriers, golden eagles and many more beautiful species.
That is damage that we have now repaired.
As for Nutkin – he was a killer too, in his own way. I had first-hand experience of the little blighter at one of his last strongholds in Norfolk when I lived among the woods of Bath Hills alongside the River Waveney.
He too ate the eggs of the mistle thrush, and he even got into my house through the pantry window and raided the cheese, the bread, and the pickles, ripping the lids off the jars and stripping any packet that looked promising.
No wonder people in the Middle Ages reared them in cages for the table, as they did for rabbits.
The British red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris leucourus is not found anywhere else.
A separate race of the red, S.v. vulgaris was introduced from Scandinavia into Scotland in 1793 and another race, S.v. fuscoater, into Epping in 1910.
Even so, Nutkin should have more claim to our affection and place in our ecosystem than S.carolinensis. But do the public agree?