One of the controversial pleasures of modern London living is undoubtedly the sight of grey squirrels everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. These days, my suburban garden can be seen hosting them on any given day, and I usually encounter them on my route to work at some point.
Now the thing is, my children love them. They are basically attractive creatures, with a huge bushy tale and, in London's parks and open spaces at least, they are endearingly tame. They will even take food directly from your hands if you are still and patient. Of course, this makes them beloved of little people everywhere, who feed them, and thus perpetuate the rise of grey squirreldom.
The Eastern Grey Squirrel is in fact an American introduction into Britain, and it has been so hugely successful that it has led to the near extinction of Britain's smaller, native, and genuinely beautiful red squirrel, especially in the south. There are no certainties about exactly why the red has suffered so badly since the grey was introduced deliberately as a curiosity during the 19th century, but it may simply be that the grey is basically made of stern stuff, and competes with the native breed for food and habitat.
|Red Squirrel By Tomi Tapio K; image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic|
The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) in the UK actually deals specifically with grey squirrels, stating that if one should be captured it must not be released but humanely destroyed. Such is the threat level the greys are perceived to possess. It seems a shame, and one of the many difficult things we must overcome on a path to proper conservation.
On a lighter note, I remember some time back discussing the issue of grey squirrels with a Spanish friend, not a native English speaker, but someone who's English was certainly very much superior to my Spanish. The intention had very much been to consider the prevalence of grey squirrels in English parks, but unfortunately the conversation was unable to proceed very far. It was broadly as follows:
Siddie Nam: So you see, the grey squirrels aren't native to this park, but they're very common indeed.
Spanish Friend: ¿Qué? "Skwiwwels"?
SF: Sorry, I no understand?
SN: The fluffy grey creatures in the trees?
At this point, a Canadian friend who was also in the park with us, joined in in an attempt to clarify:
Canadian Friend: It's his accent. Siddie, you have to remember that your London accent sounds to Spanish ears as if you're saying a "W" when you are in fact saying an "R".
SN: Oh. And there's me thinking I was the perfect example of fine diction and elocution.
CF: Don't be cheeky. (Turning to Spanish Friend) What Siddie is trying to say is "grey squirrel".
SF: "Grey squirl?" What's a squirl?
SN: It's a squirrel.
SF: But you are talking about a "squirl". I don't know what a skwiwwel or a squirl is? What are their names in Spanish?
SN: (Blank look)
SF: Is that a skwiwwel or a squirl? What would you call the other one in Spanish?
CF: No, there's only one word I know for a squirrel in Spanish. "Ardilla".
SF: Yes, I understand. And what about a "skwiwwel"?