Friends, I'd like to take just a moment of your valuable time to discuss a subject that affects us all--squirrels.
That's right, squirrels. You may be a gardener (no doubt itching to get into the far-off springtime soil) who is now whiling away the tail end of winter by hatching creative ways to keep the pests from stealing your produce spoils. Or you may be a nature lover who just enjoys watching the squirrel families scamper about the trees, marveling over their curiosity, resourcefulness and dexterity.
I, myself, have a love-hate relationship with the squirrels. I've been in both the gardening and the nature-loving camps. I enjoy watching them, but there was one summer spent shaking my fist at the varmints as they took every single green tomato off the vine and brazenly ate them on the branch outside my second-story window, adding insult to injury by spitting choice bits down onto my car roof below.
But consider now the British red squirrel, a vibrant, cheeky little creature whose scarlet coat simply glows. The sad truth of the matter is that the big, pushy American grey squirrel is taking over the plucky red squirrel's habitat and causing marked species decline.
Since coming to England, and especially after my week in Scotland, I've thought of the squirrel in a new way: Yet Another Sign of Our Shrinking Globe.
"The red squirrel is native to Britain, but its future is increasingly uncertain as the introduced American grey squirrel expands its range across the mainland. There are estimated to be only 140,000 red squirrels left in Britain, with over 2.5 million greys. The Forestry Commission is working with partners in projects across Britain to develop a long-term conservation strategy that deters greys and encourages reds."
The red squirrel may be an English icon, just like a red fox, but it is dying out here in Great Britain, as the above Forestry Commission report makes clear. This is hardly a new phenomenon. I think of Bill Bryson's excellent Australia travel book, In a Sunburnt Country, which documents case after case of species annihilation caused by the introduction of Western plants and animals.
This time, though, the little red British squirrel is at the mercy of the behemoth American grey. Of course the culture critics can make all sorts of fun metaphors with that one. But I see this phenomenon as more of a scientific fact of life, albeit one that I hope we can alter. So I cheer on the underdog red squirrel, especially the cute ones that scampered under our lodge window in the Scottish Highlands, snatching up the peanuts we put out for them and running up the nearby silver birch to crack into the shells as we cheered from within.
Just as I am depressed by the sight of American chain stores and restaurants spread across the United Kingdom (as much as I may sometimes enjoy visiting one of those businesses), I am also depressed by the sight of American chain stores and restaurants spread across the United States. It has long been a complaint of mine that, if I drive a few miles out of any American city, I find myself in unchanging strip malls of Chili's, Targets, Borders and Blockbusters.
"If I look at the retail landscape, I can't tell anymore whether I am in Minneapolis, Phoenix, Chicago, D.C. or Lexington, Kentucky," I moan.
I do appreciate the convenience and the lower prices of these chains, but I also bemoan the continued homogenization of America. The same thing is happening in England, although the mom and pop stores seem to be doing better overall here than at home.
Let's do what we can to prevent the same thing happening to the world's wildlife. I know it's been happening for centuries, but that's no reason that we have to keep on letting it happen. Go red squirrels, go!