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Red Squirrels in Britain
There's More Than One Red Squirrel
You may not know that there's a type of Red Squirrel found in Europe, including the British Isles, which is a separate species to the one found in the USA and Canada. Technically, they have different Latin names and seem to have quite different characters. This Eurasian Red Squirrel is a shy animal, living in woodland. Although I've seldom seen it in the flesh, I have always loved the Red Squirrel found in Britain.
Sadly, it has been badly hit by the introduction of the grey squirrel from North America, which is why there are very few in England today. The majority of these squirrels live in the Scottish Highlands, with a few in some isolated pockets in England, or on islands such as the Isle of Wight.
This piece explores the place of the red squirrel in British literature and culture, as well as explaining why they are one of my favourite mammals, and showing some of the efforts being made to reverse their decline. And in the process, it features some excellent photographs by Peter G Trimming and other photographers.
Red Squirrels as Characters
Squirrel Nutkin, Bob Bushtail and Tufty
Squirrel Nutkin is the most famous Red Squirrel character in children's books, the main character of one of Beatrix Potter's tales.
However, I didn't come across her books as a child, so that's not how I first learned about Red Squirrels. Instead, I had a Ladybird Book featuring a story told in rhyme, called 'Bob Bushtail's Adventure'.
Bob is a squirrel who plays in the woods with his siblings but gets lost and has to spend all night alone, feeling very sorry for himself. This little tale was illustrated by Angusine Jeanne MacGregor, who illustrated many Ladybird Books from the 1940s onwards, and was a book that saw many new editions up until the mid 1970s. Her illustrations were used later for a new book, 'The Three Little Squirrels', published in the US in the late '70s with different text by Roberta Miller.
Tufty on YouTube
The other Red Squirrel in my childhood world was the TV character, Tufty, used to promote the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Tufty taught road safety to many generations of children. There are plenty of videos on YouTube about him, as you can see below.
Here's one of the later road safety films about Tufty, narrated by Bernard Cribbins, whom you may have come across in some of David Tennant's Doctor Who stories.
You can see some of these short films on YouTube, but I think the original black and white cartoons were better than these later colour stop-motion animation films, which I now find a bit patronising. The black and white ones didn't come over like that but, unfortunately, they are no longer available on YouTube.
The authorised version from Warne, in the original facsimilie edition with a white cover. Hardback, and the original small size. You can also get this in an 110 year anniversary limited edition with a golden cover.
Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin
Beatrix Potter is best known for her first book, 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit', but she wrote and illustrated numerous books, including the story about Squirrel Nutkin. If you visit the Lake District, you can take a look around one of her farms, Hill Top, which is now a National Trust property, and see some actual illustrations from her work in the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead village. The Gallery features a different display of them each year.
Squirrel Nutkin is a badly behaved squirrel. While other squirrels dutifully gather nuts, he messes about, playing by himself and time wasting. When the others obtain tributes and present them to Old Brown, the Tawny Owl who owns an island where they want to gather nuts, Squirrel Nutkin is disrespectful and pokes fun at Old Brown with silly rhymes. With each day's visit to Old Brown, his behaviour towards the phlegmatic owl becomes worse and worse until it escalates to the point of downright provocation. Provocation which finally meets retaliation.
Some people now find this story too violent for children, but I think you have to keep things in perspective. The original fairy stories told to children (and adults) were also pretty violent, but they were always bound up in morals and showed bad people getting their just deserts, which is also the tone of Beatrix Potter's books and a lot of other children's literature - think of Roald Dahl. 'The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin' is a cautionary story with the moral that you should treat others with respect and pull your weight in society.
As far as the various reproductions of the illustrations, the Warne & Co editions are best, in my opinion. In the early 90s, they made new transfers of the original watercolour illustrations for use in their books. Certainly, the pictures in my copy are much clearer with more vibrant colours than the images you see on the Internet. I think they're among the best of her illustrations and it is definitely worthwhile to get a good reproduction. I couldn't resist buying the book in view of the lovely watercolours of Red Squirrels, and mine is one of the Warne editions (see below).
This larger format version is the one I have. It's hardcover and a bit taller and wider than a standard paperback size. (Although this illustration makes it look pale pink, the cover actually has a white background.) I would have bought the iconic small volume, but this one was a bargain in a charity (thrift) shop!
Squirrel Nutkin Memorabilia
One place to pick up Squirrel Nutkin memorabilia is ebay. Often these are figurines by Royal Dalton and Beswick. Beswick was a respected firm based in Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands, England, who made many porcelain figurines over the years. Squirrel Nutkin was one of a series of Beatrix Potter characters that the firm began producing in 1948, and was created by Arthur Gredington, who worked for Beswick as chief modeller. Sadly, Beswick was sold to Royal Dalton in 1969 and was closed down in 2003.
Beswick figurines are collectible, although different ones have more monetary value than others. Be aware that Royal Dalton replaced the Beswick backstamp (identifying stamp, in this case under the figure's base) with their own from the late 1980s, and that most of the Beatrix Potter figures around will date from 1998 when the firm reintroduced the range. The original ones with the Beswick stamp will undoubtedly be worth more if you are planning to make a profit, as opposed to buying something you intend to keep.
Always do your research if you are buying antiques and collectibles - there are a lot of reproductions around.
Other Literary Red Squirrels
If, like me, you like reading, here are a couple of other books about Red Squirrels that sound interesting
Axel Scheffler, illustrator of tales by Julia Donaldson such as 'The Gruffalo' and 'Room on the Broom', here provides the pictures for text taken from 'The Children's Encyclopaedia of 1910'
A new edition of a British story book from the 1960s with new illustrations by Ralph Steadman.
My Real Life Encounters
I've only seen Red Squirrels twice: both times in the Lake District, a National Park in the North West of England. The first encounter happened as I was driving slowly along the narrow road leading to Wast Water, one of the more remote lakes, which has a single road leading in and out. I was thrilled to spot a squirrel sitting on a fence post. There was no traffic so I stopped the car and reached for my camera on the passenger seat, but in the split second before I turned back, the squirrel had gone.
The second time was when driving with my family along the side of Crummock Water, along a narrow winding road. I was not going fast as, apart from anything else, you often come across wandering sheep on the road. There was a flash of glowing red as a squirrel darted across in front of the car, leaped up the trunk of a tree and vanished.
Despite the brevity of these sightings, I feel privileged to have had glimpses of such a shy elusive creature.
by James Emmerson (24 in. x 18 in. at Allposters.com)
Efforts to help the Red Squirrel
This video describes the efforts being made in the north of England to save the red by controlling the population of the grey squirrel which, as a much larger animal and a carrier of squirrel pox (fatal to the red squirrel) has reduced the red to an endangered animal in Britain.
Saving the Red Squirrel in Northern England
On the Run
Red Squirrels are best appreciated when you can see how they move. This video from Youtube shows how the BBC filmed a red squirrel assault course. Here you can see how the clever animals solve problems to obtain some tantalising food.
Clever Critters: Extract from BBC documentary showing red squirrels running an assault course
Red Squirrels make cute toys and there are plenty of them around.
This toy looks the most like a European Red Squirrel out of those currently available on Amazon. I don't have this one but I do have a small Jellycat dingly-dangly Red Squirrel which is cute, and Jellycat toys are generally good.
I can't help thinking that the Red Squirrel is the cutest animal ever. Technically, it's classified as a rodent and I've had some trouble with those, but this is one rodent I wouldn't mind having around.
by Elliot Neep
18 in. x 24 in. at Allposters.com
Some Follow Up Reading
- Peter Trimming | Flickr - Photo Sharing!
Explore Peter Trimming's 8,456 photos on Flickr!
- Red Squirrels (England)
Description and background information about red squirrels
- Home | National Trust
We look after the places you love, from houses, buildings and gardens to coast and countryside. Join us and help protect them.
The National Trust's properties include Beatrix Potter's farmhouse, and the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead. You can get an annual membership that gives entry to all their properties, or pay at the door, and their open spaces are generally free for anyone to visit.