October in the Forest

Squirrels are cute, aren’t they?

That’s a question that will divide opinions depending on location and the background of the responder. Around here, the image of a grey squirrel will spring to mind, since they had successfully established themselves and replaced the reds by the 1930s. They are attractive animals: agile, playful and bold to the point of cheek. Put peanuts out for the birds around here and a squirrel will do its utmost to have them, stealing the whole feeder if possible. Here lies the problem. They are opportunists and have added hazelnuts, apples, plums, the bark, buds and shoots of trees to their menu, even eating eggs and nestlings on occasions when plant food is scarce. This has a dramatic effect on the woodland food web: bad news not just for the red squirrels but also for woodland birds and the woodlands themselves.

We recently visited a Herefordshire woodland belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall and saw a well-managed mixture of oak, cherry, rowan, hazel, walnut, sweet chestnut and other trees, but also heard about the struggle to grow good timber trees where deer and squirrels can do so much damage. It was pointed out that the fine specimens we could see there and elsewhere in England had been established before the real explosion in grey squirrel numbers (30 to 40 years ago) and that, unless something is done about their numbers, we won’t be seeing them again. Trees may be killed by bark stripping or, even if they survive, will carry the marks of the damage in their timber, making it useless as anything but firewood. The reality is that the value of the end product is what ensures the survival of our forests, whatever petitions we sign.

On a rather different note, you are invited to a talk on Wednesday 9th October at 7.30pm in the Ruskin Studio, Uncllys Farm, DY12 2LR. Sara Atwood, an American academic who is leading the development of John Ruskin’s Guild of St George in the States, will be talking about Ruskin and the environment: in particular her efforts to live out some of Ruskin's ideals in her teaching and work at her own and son's school gardens. The evening will be informal and not at all stuffy! Ring 01299 403691 for more information.