Polly Pullar is a conservationist, naturalist, writer and photographer with over 30 years professional experience. She is the co-founder of A Write Highland Hoolie – Mallaig Book Festival and is a regular chair at her favourite book festival – Wigtown. She specialises in wildlife and countryside matters and is also a wildlife rehabilitator. She contributes to a wide selection of magazines every month and is the author of nine books, including – A Richness of Martens – Wildlife Tales from the Highlands, and The Red Squirrel – A Future in the Forest. Her latest book – A Scurry of Squirrels – Nurturing the Wild, was published in July 2021, and her memoir will be published in July 2022. She is a keen hill walker and sailor and lives in Highland Perthshire with a large menagerie including two red deer hinds, squirrels, hedgehogs and three Border collies – and a long-suffering partner.
All images taken by Polly Pullar
Sleep has been hard to come by, for I have been rising in the small hours to nurture a minute red squirrel kit, rescued by a Braemar Mountain Rescue Team member, and aptly described as ‘another climber’. We care about red squirrels.
Imagine one hundred people together from all walks of life. Ask each their opinions on nature, and you will encounter widely differing agendas. When it comes to wildlife, we are fickle and like things to slot neatly into categories, boxed up, causing no trouble and only viewed at our convenience. We wrongly categorise our wildlife as good or bad. Take the badger – blamed for just about every evil known to man, though not yet Coronavirus. We wrongly accuse it of ripping out sheep’s throats yet overlook the simple fact that more farm livestock is worried and killed by our dogs annually than any fox or badger. Ask for opinions on gulls, ravens, pine martens, even benign bats, and you will get vitriol.
Recently I commented to a friend that I had been relishing the joys of the treasure in our harmless moth trap; ‘Moths are bad, they eat clothes,’ he replied. And he should have known better. Of the 2500 species of moth in the UK, only two will munch textiles. Complex misconception is at the root of most wildlife conflict issues, and it is often a basic misunderstanding that can change the fortunes of a given species. However, mention the red squirrel, and faces illuminate. It is high on a pedestal, adored by almost everyone. This was not, however, always the case and until as recently as 1981 when it received full legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, red squirrels too were culled in shockingly high numbers. We believed that they decimated trees and dented the wild bird population by eating eggs. Now the red squirrel stands as proof that we can, and indeed have, taken a 360-degree turn and changed our perceptions. When it comes to predators, be they avian or mammalian, we need to do just that. We need predators just as we need prey. Sadly, not everyone would agree.
Since restoring the habitat on our little farm, the squirrels have returned, and so too have a wealth of other species that all slot together. Scotland holds 70% of the UK red squirrel population, but estimates suggest the overall total is only approximately 140,000. Habitat shrinks, then like wool jerseys in a boiling hot wash, nothing fits. Red squirrels are also beset by disease carried by the non-native North American grey – a more robust rodent that outcompetes the fragile red for a dwindling food source, an imposter here through no fault of its own. Where man meddles, there is always trouble. We manage and micromanage – the grey squirrel is a perfect example of our folly.
It is scientifically proven that time spent in nature helps our general health and wellbeing. Studying the minutiae of life in and around our gardens and local parks during the enforced lockdowns helped to salve the angst and misery of the pandemic and nature accrued many new advocates. I cannot help wondering is this newfound love purely skin deep? Will we continue to care as things ease and life is perhaps a little more as we remembered? What do we give back in return as we flock in vast numbers to popular beauty spots, beaches and well-trodden mountains?
Globally, Scotland is one of the most nature-depleted countries, yet as we are witnessing, tourists flock here often for our wildlife. This is an example of successful misconception at work. We have the chance now to become a shining beacon of hope instead of heading on a downward trajectory. If the only way forward to tackle the current biodiversity crisis is to give major incentives to work with natural processes, surely no price is high enough.
Many squirrels and other orphaned and injured wild things pass through my hands, and when a new casualty is brought in, I am always painfully aware of the role we play in making life hard for these vulnerable creatures. After another feed, my tiny orphan kit settles to sleep. I will be up again in the night. I will sit silently in the kitchen with the window flung wide listening to the snufflings and rumblings of a badger excavating the garden in search of invertebrates. Yesterday a fizz of furious wasps greeted me as I hung out the washing. A badger had excavated their nest and devoured the grubs. Badgers rearrange the flower beds, while both roe (and occasionally red deer too) do the pruning; I garden with nature, let the grass grow long and the wildflowers flourish. Why spend so much time battling against it when wildness is more beautiful and more important than we ever appreciate?
During the first lockdown at the height of the breeding season, people rang and left the troubled creatures they found in cardboard boxes at the farm gate. We had more barn owlets than usual, and more hedgehoglets and squirrel kits too, as well as an enchanting nervy little brown hare leveret. All demanded endless time and attention and brought us great joy. Luckily most made it back to the wild. Often there are too many that don’t. All have one thing in common: they spotlight the fact that we hold the future of all living things in the palms of our hands. The red squirrel is a prime example, for these arboreal athletes are not yet out of the wood, and in order to secure their future we need to restore and connect habitat and let nature have the space it requires. We need to remember too, that while nature can survive without us, we cannot survive without nature. There is no good and bad in a thriving ecosystem. If only we let it, it would all fit seamlessly together as part of a vibrant tapestry of life – all life.
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