Squirrel Nation: Reds, Greys and the Meaning of Home

Peter Coates
Reaktion Books, £16.99    

Squirrel Nation is a historical account of how and where the squirrel fits into the British countryside and British life, where the red squirrel is seen as the original British squirrel and the grey an invading foreigner.

The grey squirrel’s presence has caused controversy for decades. A common view is that the grey is replacing the British red squirrel with its distasteful and dominating ways, regardless of ecological similarities. In fact, the author compares this to views of American GIs during the Second World War who were ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’ and thus disrupting the British way of life.

The grey squirrel is not overpaid, so is given a variation on the latter in being ‘oversexed, overfed and over here’. As public enemy number one, the grey is regularly blamed for taking baby birds and birds’ eggs, and stripping bark from sycamore trees, which could be worsening climate change. The ironies are that the sycamore is also classed as an invasive species, while the red squirrel will also feed on young birds and birds’ eggs when necessary.

Over seven chapters, author Peter Coates describes the history of the red and grey squirrel in the UK from what he calls “silly squirrel rules” to the campaigns waged against the grey, the buildup of red squirrel survival groups and, finally, squirrel racism – the suggestion that the beautifully coloured red is thought of as sweet and natural while the grey is persecuted.

Yet most of the perceived endearing qualities of the red squirrel are also shared by the grey. Similarly, many accusations against the grey could also be levelled at the red, and Coates suggests the time has come to learn to live with the greys and think of them with the same affection as the reds.

With its extensive references and comprehensive index, Squirrel Nation is a publication worthy of note. With images, including some colour, the book is a fascinating account of human social history and attitudes in the UK in which the squirrel has played and still plays an important part.

Pat Sang CBiol MRSB