Here is a thought experiment: what if the grey squirrel were native to this country and Britain had been invaded by ‘alien red squirrels from continental Europe’, who had largely usurped ‘our’ native greys? Would we feel about the grey as we now feel about the red, and vice versa? The thought experiment was devised by sciurologist (squirrel expert) John Gurnell and the answer is probably yes, we would cherish the imperilled native grey just as we now do our native red. The fact is that, as Peter Coates makes clear in this magnificent survey of Britain’s ‘squirrel wars’, there is little real difference between greys and reds, apart from the grey’s greater adaptability and superior food-finding skills. Before ‘the sanctification of Squirrel Nutkin’ by Beatrix Potter and others, the red squirrel (then more usually known as the common or brown squirrel) was widely regarded as a pest, guilty of the same bad habits that are now laid at the door of the grey – eating birds’ eggs and nestlings, damaging trees, getting into places where it ought not to be and being altogether too curious, mischievous and greedy. Squirrel Nutkin himself, for all his cuteness, is a deplorable character, suicidally reckless in his tormenting of Old Brown the owl. Potter had no qualms about getting a gamekeeper to shoot a red squirrel for her so she could boil it down to a skeleton to ensure her drawings of Nutkin and friends were anatomically accurate.
It was only with the coming of the American grey squirrel, originally introduced into England by the Duke of Bedford in 1876, that attitudes to the red began to soften. Antipathy to the foreign usurper grew until, with the grey clearly taking over from the red across most