‘Look Mummy! Squirrels!’ cried oldest son in rapt delight.
The small grey rodent shimmied along the branch nearest to us, and, with an arrogant swagger, began to annihilate the plastic bird feeder.
Like Veruca Salt on a mission in the Nut Room, oldest son leapt into action. He flapped towards it menacingly in his new red wellies. ‘Come here little squirrel! I want to stroke you!’ he shrieked.
The squirrel stopped demolishing and fixed oldest son with a black and beady eye. But instead of retreating (as any sensible dangerous dog would do when faced with our ‘animal loving’ son) the squirrel stood its ground. Suddenly it moved towards him and bared sharp teeth.
‘These are MY nuts buster! And I can take you any time!’ it seemed to be saying.
‘Eeek!’ cried oldest son and fled. He was shocked that ‘Bobby Bushtail’ had shown such alarming aggression – and frankly, so were we.
You see a decade or so ago, a grey squirrel in your English country garden was a bit of a treat. It was fun to watch the bold little creature scrambling onto the bird table in midwinter to help itself to the bacon rind and peanuts. What were a few bark-stripped dead trees when compared to such a pleasure?
But 10 years on it’s a very different scene. Like rioting looters ransacking their nearest cornershop, these determined little beasties are literally waging war on the British countryside.
While in Suffolk, we took the boys for a walk (enroute to a rather nice pub). We entered a leafy lane, where the trees had grown together overhead. Sunlight dappled through the canopy and the breeze gently rippled the leaves. Lovely…
Then we saw the squirrels. Everywhere.
They were scurrying overhead, launching themselves at each other with a ferocity usually reserved for gypsy encampment fight clubs… Branches swung low as they plopped down onto the path before us and had a vicious scrap, before taking their quarrel back tree-wards. It was as though we humans weren’t even there. ‘I don’t like them mummy,’ oldest son whispered.
Neither did we.
We were no longer fooled by the twitchy noses and cute fluffy tails – or even the charming ability to eat with two front paws. Squirrels, we realized, are the animal equivalent to dole-scrounging, lay abouts. They move into a neighbourhood, use bully tactics to scare off the existing residents, and then spend every other spare moment fighting, wrecking the joint or having sex. They are the animal kingdom’s answer to Chavs, minus the tramp stamps, Tennents Super and Housing Benefit….
But rather like the looters that have laid waste to England’s inner cities of late, we only have ourselves to blame. You see, the current obsession with ‘Elf and Safety’ and ‘Uman rights’ has become so entrenched in British culture, that it’s even extended itself to pesky vermin. Yes, killing a squirrel on your own land, even if it’s waging a war against your ornamental trees, is a prosecutable offence…
One balmy afternoon in Cambridgeshire, while staying with the in-laws, a young squirrel (while having a scrap with another squirrel in the weeping willow tree) fell from the branch and was injured. The MIL, who is supremely soft hearted and hates to see any creature suffer, called the RSPCA. ‘Keep an eye on it and we’ll come and collect it tomorrow,’ came the unhelpful reply.
Of course, that night there was a thunder storm. So, my law-abiding MIL found herself out in the garden at midnight attempting to place a plastic laundry basket over the squirrel, ‘to keep it dry’. But even when fatally wounded, these creatures are a bloody nuisance – and the wretched thing kept escaping from its shelter and then wailing about it. Needless to say, the MIL got very little sleep that night.
The next day, she called the RSPCA again. ‘We’re very busy this morning dealing with other squirrel enquiries. We can’t get to you until at least 11am. Don’t touch it, and keep any pets and children away,’ they said. Of course, this meant the garden was out of bounds for the boys who, full of rampant energy, were desperate to get outside. Instead, they had to make do with wrecking the house (and breaking the Crowne Derby). It also meant that Hugo, the ancient Labrador with a dodgy prostate, was banned from the garden too.
Chaos reigned until the RSPCA finally showed up. The portly woman appeared with a cardboard container, scooped the bedraggled creature into it, declared there was no hope, and promptly went to euthanize it ‘humanely’. The entire episode had lasted almost 24 hours.
Twenty-four agonizing hours!
One whole day of acute and prolonged suffering – caused by sleeplessness, squabbling kids, dog wee wee and priceless antique porcelain breakages…
A couple of days later, we went to visit my maternal aunt. A tiny elderly lady with a deceptively steely core, she happens to have a magnificent garden in the heart of Constable Country – and EU regulations and namby-pamby laws don’t stand a chance…
While we were admiring her 450 year-old mulberry tree, DH suddenly asked her why she had galvanized cage traps dotted around her vast lawn. ‘Squirrels darling,’ she explained, without a hint of emotion. ‘We trap em’.
‘And then you call the RSPCA?’ he asked innocently, while I guffawed.
‘Oh Lord no!’ she laughed, shaking her head. ‘If George [my uncle] is here, he shoots them with the shotgun.’
DH was surprised, but did a good job of acting cool. ‘And what if George isn’t around..?’ he queried – and then probably wished he hadn’t
‘Well darling, I’m not strong enough to handle the 12 bore anymore,’ she lamented, puffing away on a black cheroot. ‘So I take them down to the stream and drown them.’ Pause. ‘We shoot the rabbits too,’ she added into the stunned silence, lest DH thought she was the discriminating type. ‘They make jolly nice stew if you can get the buck shot out of em.’
For a moment, I felt bad. I thought about those beady little eyes looking death (Aunt Flo) in the face, and doddery Uncle George as he attempted to wield the double barreled shotgun… arthritic knees quaking querulously.…
But then I got over it and went to pick mulberrys with the boys. After all, life’s too short to let squirrel encounters ruin one’s holiday. And Air Berlin (another pestilent scourge) had already wasted enough of our time on home turf…
Yep. Tough luck Tufty… Here’s hoping there are hazelnuts in heaven…