Heritage: How Squirrel Nutkin lost out to the grey squirrels

The UK's native red squirrels lost the battle to imported American grey squirrels. Photos:Ian Burt a

The UK's native red squirrels lost the battle to imported American grey squirrels. Photos:Ian Burt and Steve Plastow - Credit: Ian Burt

Red versus grey - Prof Ged Martin looks at the history of the country’s squirrels

Around 1260, Geoffrey Scurrell was the king’s bailiff in Havering. He collected rents and enforced regulations.

We rarely know what medieval people looked like, nor much about their health.

But I suspect Geoffrey had high blood pressure and an over-active thyroid.

Surnames were just beginning to evolve from nicknames.

By 1280, we hear of John Esquirrel, probably Geoffrey’s son – spellings varied a lot.

High blood pressure meant a red face, thyroid problems cause protruding eyes.

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I’m sure Geoffrey earned his nickname because he looked like a russet-furred, pop-eyed red squirrel.

The family probably farmed near Gidea Park station. A triangular block of common land across to The Drill, called Squirrels Heath, was enclosed in 1814.

In medieval times, our squirrels were red, not grey. Red squirrels are sweet little beasts. White furry tufts in their ears give them a puzzled look.

They’ve good reason to be puzzled, since very few survive.

When Beatrix Potter wrote the children’s story Squirrel Nutkin in 1903, naturally the hero was a red squirrel. But a menace was lurking.

Wealthy British travellers crossing the Atlantic were charmed to discover American squirrels, larger than ours, and grey. Definitely a must-have item for your country estate!

In 1890, the Duke of Bedford imported ten of them. Some were released at Woburn Abbey, others in London’s Regents Park.

This was a disaster. Grey squirrels can produce eight offspring (“kittens”) each year. Half don’t survive infancy, but the rest start breeding at thirteen months. With a life span of three to ten years, numbers grew terrifyingly fast.

But surely, the British red squirrel could repel the invaders?

Unfortunately, the greys carried a virus, squirrel pox. They’ve developed immunity to it, but the reds had no resistance.

Red squirrels feed on ripe brown acorns, which they store for the winter. That’s why we talk about “squirrelling away” our savings.

But the greys gobble up acorns when they’re young and green, leaving nothing left for their cousins to gather when autumn arrives.

The Duke’s exotic pets exploded across southern England, but they were slow to penetrate Essex. The Lea Valley, with its factories and reservoirs, formed a barrier.

The first grey squirrel was spotted near Epping in 1921. By 1935, they were colonising Epping Forest, despite a campaign in which 150 were shot.

Around 1947, red squirrel numbers suddenly dropped dramatically in Epping Forest, probably through disease. Ten years later, they’d almost vanished across Essex.

The invasion slowed down, but not for long.

By 1945, grey squirrels were spotted at Havering-atte-Bower. Greys were still rare around Romford and Hornchurch in the 1950s.

Not any more! It’s fun watching dogs chasing them in Havering parks (they never catch any), but the grey squirrels are a pest.

In 2013, a squirrel chewed through a power cable at a house in Main Road Romford, causing a fire and £20,000 worth of damage.

Although they’re not a protected species, you can be prosecuted for cruelty if you kill them. Leave any squirrel problems to experts.

A 2017 project planned to lure grey squirrels into eating hazelnut spread (their favourite treat) laced with oral contraceptives.

Backed by Prince Charles, this dotty-sounding scheme might reduce their numbers.

There are now over two million grey squirrels in Britain. A few thousand reds hang on, mostly in Scottish pine forests.

In 2012, a fight-back began. Mersea Island is joined to Essex by a causeway, covered at high tide. Grey squirrels had kept clear.

Twenty red squirrels were released on the island, with hopes they would breed.

So far, the experiment’s gone well.

But there was a crisis in 2018 when two greys were spotted on Mersea. They’d probably swum across from the mainland. Volunteers tried to trap them.

Mersea’s red squirrels are shy, but some visitors are lucky enough to spot them.

Be kind if you meet one. They’ve had a hard time.