A red squirrel is perfectly adapted to its life in trees as a wild goat is to its life on vertiginous, craggy cliff faces. It can cling, grip, run, leap and almost fly through its sylvan surroundings with ease of a knife through soft butter, and it is also an excellent swimmer, though would not take to water by choice.
Estimates of current UK red squirrel numbers stand at around 160,000, though it could be far lower. Some 75% of this figure is accounted for in Scotland, with small populations clinging on to a few isolated areas in England and Wales.
Photographer Neil McIntyre says: “My intention over all these years has not necessarily been to reveal every facet of squirrel behaviour but to capture their individual spirit and character. And – crucially – to show the connection between the squirrels and the woodland on which they depend.”
The red squirrel has been in the British Isles for over 10,000 years. It arrived after the end of the last Ice Age, but has been up against strong odds ever since.
Red squirrels were once heavily persecuted in this country and elsewhere in Europe, where their fur was used to line exotic garments. As deforestion and several severe winters led to their near-total loss in the 18th century, a few enlightened landowners changed tack altogether and reintroduced red squirrels to some of their previous haunts. One of the few places where a small population survived was at Rothiemurchus, in the Cairngorms, appropriately now home to the very squirrels that Neil knows and loves so well.
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in” Greek proverb
Today, native woodland covers only 2% of Scotland’s land mass. The paucity of habitat is to the detriment of all living species, including man. For the red squirrel, many forests have become marooned islands where the population remains static – or worse still, dwindles altogether. It was once said that in many parts of Scotland, a squirrel could travel widely in any direction without ever touching the ground. That vision has long gone.
Deer shed their antlers annually. Roe bucks use theirs between October and December, and grow new ones over the winter months, while red deer stags shed theirs in March and April. Squirrels are attracted to discarded antlers, and soon the signs of their sharp teeth marks indicate that they also take advantage of them to provide vital minerals.
Photographer Neil says: “With our house surrounded by perfect red squirrel habitat, it’s little wonder they are daily visitors to the garden. At almost any time of the day, you can look out if the window and somewhere in view there will likely be a squirrel up to some mischief or other. This is not unique to our house by any means – red squirrels are regular garden visitors wherever there is good habitat nearby.”
As autumn approaches, there is a bounteous glut, and a squirrel becomes ever more frenetic. It dashes back and forth collecting hazel nuts, beech masts, or ripe acorns, burying its finds in the woodland floor. This accelerated behaviour is indeed a race against time.
The Red Squirrel: A Future in the Forest is a collection of stunning photographs by Neil McIntyre with words by Polly Pullar