At the risk of getting into a B-movie rut, my last blog was about zombie pigeon; this one’s about mutant squirrels and their supernatural powers…
This morning I was lucky enough to see a white squirrel in the woods near where I grew up.
Naturally, one shouldn’t believe everything one reads in the papers, but even allowing for “journalistic licence” when it comes to statistics, that makes this squirrel the most unusual squirrel I have ever seen, and I’m feeling pretty pleased to have seen it.
Technically, it’s a just a grey squirrel with an unusual coat, and therefore still a problem for trees and red squirrels, just like its fully-grey family and friends, of which there are thought to be more than 2.5 million in the UK (and I’m not normally a fan of grey squirrels: I identify strongly with the Blackadder highwaywoman Amy Hardwood, if you’ve had the pleasure).
However, a white grey squirrel is much more exciting than a grey grey squirrel.
The white squirrel’s reported rarity certainly helps; scarcity is sexy when it comes to wildlife – even if the characteristics that set a particular animal apart from the crowd are merely a matter of pigmentation. The harder an animal is to find, the more exclusive is the “club” of those who have seen it, with a proportional increase in bragging rights (hence I’m writing this blog).
Another important factor is that a white squirrel has symbolism on its side, even if it is still basically a tree rat: grey, common enough in nature and even more so in today’s concrete and steel world, is a stereotypically unspectacular colour in most contexts, associated with dullness and uniformity; pure white on the other hand is rarer in nature and has a much stronger symbolic value – in folklore all-white animals have long been seen as portents of good luck, symbols of purity and even visitors from the realms of gods and spirits.
Now, I’m pretty sure that my white squirrel was not a messenger from another world. It was, however, an ironic coincidence: yesterday I had been complaining that I never see anything interesting in the woods down here.
Earlier this week I spent a glorious day in Oxfordshire learning to do reconnaissance for a planned pigeon shooting project. The pigeon weren’t out in great numbers, having declared it a day better suited to sleep than spring rape, but we saw hares, fallow deer, a beautiful pair of buzzards, a few red kites and lots and lots of lapwings, among other things.
As Mr SB drove us down to Kent the following day I grumbled that the woodland wildlife in the patch of East Kent where I grew up was singularly uninspiring. We do have plenty of woodpigeon, good numbers of doves and sparrows and hundreds of pheasants, but we don’t get deer, hardly ever see hares, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a bird of prey, though I always see plenty of these things elsewhere.
Mr SB said that this was odd, and I did have to admit that it was possible that I just hadn’t been looking hard enough.
So it was that I set out into the woods this morning, determined to spy out whatever I could. I had barely got into the trees when something rustled loudly to my left. One of the branches bounced and swung in the morning sun as I searched for whatever it was that had made the noise.
At first sight, I thought the white-furred creature was a ferret. It was only as it clung to the low canopy above me, silhouetted against the sunshine, that it became clear that it was a squirrel.
It looked at me for a moment with its red eyes, translucent coat taking on the colour of the green light filtered through the leaves behind it, then scrabbled off to continue with whatever it had been doing before I had so rudely interrupted. Likewise, I continued about my business, buoyed up by this early excitement, eyes and ears on the alert.
Perhaps the white squirrel was a bringer of good luck: by the end of the walk I had seen a couple of hares, a few rabbits, and a big fox, along with the usual pheasants, partridges and lots of very busy smaller birds. There was even a buzzard soaring over the field at the back of the house when I got back.
I’m almost as sceptical about the supernatural powers of the white squirrel as I am about statistics quoted in newspapers, but I don’t doubt that it had the power to stop me taking the familiar for granted. I’ve been walking through the woods down here for more than 30 years but I don’t think I’ve looked at them as closely, or had as much fun, since I stopped searching for fairies and Robin Hood.
So, after zombie pigeon and mutant squirrels, this blog is in danger of developing a disturbing Dr Who meets Beatrix Potter vibe…and leaves me wondering where on earth it will head next… But for now I’m off to the garden to look at frogs…