My own memorable wildlife encounter did not take place on the sprawling plains of Africa, deep underwater or in some eclectic, emerald rainforest. Nor did it feature big cats, orca, primates, harriers or any other species held in high esteem by the masses.

No, my own encounter took place on a frigid December morning in a most unremarkable urban woodland. A park, of the kind where unruly youths’ light fires and booze, dog-walkers descent en masse during diurnal hours and, by night, unsavoury characters hold clandestine meet-ups beneath the outstretched limbs of invasive Sycamores. The creature at the heart of this short account: a squirrel. A small chittering rodent – hardly the stuff of popular dreams.

Entering my imperfect local patch early on a frost-strewn morning, little appeared out of place. The odd, machine-gun burst of song from a peeved Wren and the panicked wing-beats of departing Woodpigeons the soundtrack to a typically mundane Winter walk. Until, that is, all changed with an unseasonal blaze of warm, familiar auburn.

Lolloping into the track before me and pausing beneath the obnoxious metal barriers that mark the entrance to the wood, the Red Squirrel did not see me at first. A brief pause in motion lending time to disbelieving scrutiny: ear tufts, check, russet fur, check; bushy, red-blonde tail, yes. It was, as I suspected, and hoped; though there was little time to revel in the sight.

As is so often the case with fleet-footed small mammals, the squirrel vanished almost immediately. Continuing its trajectory with renewed haste having eventually noticed its dumbfounded admirer. Autumn-red fur blending away near instantly into the tangled stems of the wispy Snowberry bushes that line the trail.

Far from a close encounter, I admit, and exactly not exactly jaw-dropping viewing; although, strangely, this was enough. My trip home marked by an unmatched up swelling of joy, a surge of adrenaline and, dare I say, a dash of jaded pride.

For a little background, Red Squirrels were a familiar aspect of the wood during my childhood. The subject of countless Sunday morning pilgrimages and a reliable note of wilderness in an otherwise monotonous, urban setting. Until, that is, they had vanished. A creeping, gradual disappearance marked by that dreaded first occurrence of a foreign invader: the Grey Squirrel. An accepted and enjoyed part of life elsewhere, but up here, a maligned nuisance – much despised by all with even a passing interest in nature.

I do not hate greys; they are interesting, charismatic and dare I say, rather cute. Bug-eyed and bushy-tailed. A species cast into the firing line due to our own ignorance in transporting species around the globe on a whim. A creature merely following instinct and therefore undeserving of the ire placed upon them.

That said, by the time the last red disappeared from Half-Penny, I confess I was ready to act. To do something – anything – to recoup what I perceived as a great loss. Motivation in turn leading to training and, later, countless hours spent in the field attempting to rid the wood of this alien menace.

The control of any species, native or not, is a ghastly affair, and with Grey Squirrels, it is no different. The physical act of trapping an animal and extinguishing a life going against every fibre of my being as a nature lover. Moral compass further confused as grisly terms such as ‘cranial dispatch’ come into play.

Despite this, for years, I did my ‘duty’, killing in the name of conservation and regularly sparring with disapproving locals, genuinely and justifiably appalled by my actions. Part of me wishes I had not in hindsight, as truthfully, this is where I believe my youthful, ignorant image of conservation died. Vanquished upon realisation that the field is nothing like you see on TV. Often as far as far can be from pretty, noble or glamourous.

For me, the return of the Red Squirrel to the Half-Penny Wood was bittersweet. On one hand, it was joyous – the sight of an old friend once again standing proud in his rightful place, uplifting, cathartic even. On the other hand, my favourite wildlife moment was a stark reality check. A reminder that not all is rosy in nature, and sometimes, the act of ‘saving’ wildlife can be an outright horrible one.

Reds once again abound in Half-Penny Wood, although thankfully, others have now taken charge of their protection. Much to my relief.

About the Entry

  • Blogger name | James Michael Common
  • Site name | Common By Nature
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  • Why should someone visit your site? My blog is focused entirely on British nature, including observations of the natural world, environmental news and the odd scattering of opinion – often on topical conservation debates. It is a nature journal, first and foremost, with a broad focus on all areas of natural history.
  • Entry Number | 13

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