Twin russet streaks raced up the oak’s trunk. They paused for a moment overhead then careered down in controlled free fall. In a moment, one swung from the bird feeder. Its long red tail swept beneath, as its busy little arms grabbed at the peanuts. A second later, it pivoted acrobatically from its hind legs.
It is the first time that I have seen red squirrels at The Observatory. I watched this pair from the back door of the house. By some fluke, I even managed some photographs.
Official accounts relate that red squirrels have always been present in Highland Perthshire. No doubt this is true, but one could go years without actually seeing one. I had cycled around Loch Tummel most weekends for five years before one first crossed my field of vision, some 20 years ago. Since then, I haven’t seen one in my own garden. After my first encounter, this ‘pair’ has put on a display whenever I leave the house.
For decades, native reds have fought a losing battle with their larger grey cousins, an American import who arrived in Victorian times. Greys are generally win the battle for scarce food, as well as carrying squirrelpox, a virus harmless to them but deadly to reds. During the twentieth century, reds appeared doomed to Darwinian oblivion.
Their arrival in The Observatory’s garden is welcome, if not entirely surprising. For the past decade (and I believe before that), a Government-backed initiative has sought to promote the red squirrel population. Since 2012, Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels, a multi-agency body, has intervened to halt the spread of greys, and promote that of reds. Its latest annual report shows that the number of areas in Scotland north of the highland fault recording a presence of red squirrels only has increased more than four-fold over the past decade.
For an armchair naturalist such as I, this growing population is an unalloyed treat. Not all in Pitlochry have cheered the reds’ onward march, however. A month ago one invaded the town’s Greggs (a retail multiple selling takeaway snacks). The flame-haired rodent slipped the sausage-roll sellers’ grasp for three days, before its humane capture and release. By then, tv crews and crowds had reportedly gathered at the bakery’s windows hoping to see a flash of red among the donuts and eclairs.
Hopefully The Observatory’s squirrels will endure without need for fast food, or news cameras. For so long as they do, visitors can be assured dramatic displays of agility and a darting counterpoint to the otherwise sedate foliage. Long may they thrive.