When I first pitched my dissertation title ‘Squirrel Wars: Red vs Grey’ to my peers, I was met with shock and surprise. Surely, they said to me, a degree in History means writing a dissertation on historical battles or changes in human history? To some people this may be so, but in my opinion, squirrels have indeed been locked in an almost unnoticed historical battle for centuries, and they have changed human attitudes towards nature and wildlife. Therefore, when I discovered that I had won the A Focus on Nature Environmental History Award for my dissertation, I was not only ecstatic that my hard work was rewarded, but also that there was an award in place recognising the importance of environmental writing.
This award means so much to me as animals have occupied a large place in my heart since I was a child, I have constantly surrounded myself with them and felt comfortable in their presence. Growing up, I began to understand the detrimental impact that humankind has had on animals for centuries, but as in the case of the squirrel, its fight to survive against this activity proved to me that animals deserved protection and recognition. Even before I needed to think about writing my dissertation, I knew that I wanted to dedicate my research to an aspect of wildlife history.
Red squirrel taken at the Lodge Forest Visitor Centre in Aberfoyle, Scotland.
But why squirrels? Most people do not give the grey a second glance and few have ever seen a red, meaning its struggle for survival is invisible to many. I wanted to break these traditions and prove why squirrels were an important part of British heritage and history. A trip up to Scotland in the summer before my final year at the University of Nottingham led to my first encounters with red squirrels. I am not ashamed to say a few tears escaped my eyes as I stared in wonder at such majestic and adorable creatures. It is no wonder why Beatrix Potter spent hours sketching and painting the creatures, their coats were streaked with reds and oranges and their ear tufts were enough to make any wildlife lover instantly reach for their camera.
What struck me in that moment was how differently people reacted to seeing a red squirrel in comparison to the grey. How could grey squirrels be labelled as ‘the equivalent of the Nazis’ in an episode of Doc Martin, yet reds could stir such feelings of pride and admiration? There was more to the squirrel than what met the eye. This was a contested beast; the grey was a garden menace, but the red was a national symbol of what it meant to be British.
Suddenly my dissertation reached new heights. This was not just a history of squirrels; this was now a history of war. A civil war – squirrel vs squirrel, battling for the hearts and minds of the nation.
My dissertation journeyed to the original squirrel researchers, the naturalists who loved and feared the squirrels and who produced pioneering works on their biology. A notable figure included Monica Shorten, who changed the course of squirrel research in her book Squirrels(1954) through analysing all aspects of squirrel behaviour. It was fascinating to find out that in Shorten’s day red squirrels were the most populous and visible squirrel, whereas today red squirrels have been forced into small pockets of woodland and greys have conquered most of the UK. In less than a century, there was a complete inversion of squirrel populations.
The grey squirrel also provokes a fierce ‘alien versus native’ controversy amongst naturalists as my research tackled the ominous debate over whether the American grey belongs in Britain and whether it was racist to argue that the grey should be culled. Arguably, it was not a matter of the colour of their fur, but the volume of ecological damage that the grey committed in comparison to the red that lead to such angst. Regardless of the conclusions drawn, it was truly captivating to study such a bizarre concept, who would have thought a dissertation on such a small woodland creature could spark intense debates over racism and xenophobia?
These intense debates prove that more people are concerned for the safety of the grey as the fight to save the red lead to volunteer armies planning on wiping out the grey. Recent legislation to be implemented from October 2019 sparked outrage with its plans to tighten controls on grey squirrels in animal shelters, forbidding their release back into the wild. In simple terms, they will be killed or imprisoned indefinitely. Not only is there a civil war between squirrels, there is also one between people: those who wish to see the red thrive at any cost, and those who cannot justify the killing of one species to save another.
As well as focusing on the battle between squirrels in the political arena, my dissertation analysed the cultural representation of squirrels in film and literature. From Squirrel Nutkin, to Sandy Cheeks in SpongeBob SquarePants, squirrels appear far more in culture than you first realise. In order to bring these depictions of squirrels into the conflict between humankind and squirrels, I proved how the representations were a part of a subtle wartime propaganda, aiming to twist public imagination against the grey. Whereas Squirrel Nutkin and Tufty the Safety Squirrel were able to unite the nation behind the red squirrel, there was no significant counterpart for the grey, leading to it being known commonly as a tree rat.
I hope that my research will contribute to an emerging but dynamic field of inquiry by providing insights into the different realms that squirrels have impacted. Biologically, the grey squirrel was winning but overall it appears that the British public are siding with the red. One thing is clear – the squirrel wars are not over.
Jessica Hill feeding a grey squirrel on the University of Nottingham campus.