It had all the makings of a great day, the guests had arrived from far and wide, and the presents had been generous and plentiful. After the wedding breakfast the guests gathered to watch in anticipation of what the wicker hamper carefully placed on the lawn contained, a special gift from the Duke of Buckingham. After opening the basket, the guests were delighted and amused to see that it contained squirrels, twelve in total, but not of a type normally found in Ireland, they were slightly larger than the native red variant, and acted bolder, more sure of themselves, they were soon at home in the trees of the estate of Castle Forbes, county Longford. In the religious society of 1911, it would have not been unsurprising if one of the guests, in keeping with the wedding ethos, wished them the biblical injunction to “go forth, multiply and be fruitful”.
And so a thoughtful gesture of kindness turned into an ecological disaster and tragedy for the native Red Squirrel. The Grey introduced in Britain in 1890, behaved the same there as it would in Ireland, stripping the bark from broadleaf trees to get at the sugar rich sap, a habit which earned it the ire of foresters, it also had the habit of displacing the native Red, in Britain, they would retreat from England and Wales to the forests of Scotland and in Ireland over the coming decades the native Reds would end up confined to the area west of the Shannon.
The Greys are known to carry a disease, parapoxvirus, which leaves them unaffected, but is fatal to the Red. The Grey also can digest unripe acorns, whereas the Red cannot. The Greys bigger size and boldness also seem to give it an advantage when foraging, they seem to have little fear of humans and indeed I know of one adult who was attacked as a child. When the Red Squirrel is put under pressure it will not breed as often.
In spite of that the two species are not directly antagonistic, and violent conflict does not seem a factor in the decline of the Red. Indeed I recall one fine crisp autumn day walking through St Anne’s Park in North Dublin, the trees were alive with squirrels preparing for winter, of course I only saw Greys, except when I ventured into a small clearing in the trees and saw a group of perhaps five or six squirrels, around what must have been a bountiful tree with rich pickings, however I was struck by the fact that one of these was in fact a Red, up until that point I had always believed that the Greys attacked the Reds remorselessly, yet there it was, going about its business unhindered.
There is I feel no greater parallel to the fate of the indigenous native people right now, here in Ireland, than the fate of the unfortunate and very beautiful Red Squirrel, even the exile and confinement west of the Shannon has an undeniable historical resonance. Indeed the behaviour of many of our new immigrants mirrors that of the Grey, allowed in by a well meaning folly, being in many cases bigger, bolder and exhibiting, at least at a superficial level, more confidence, more aggression, and having a faster breeding capacity. Can we really say that diversity when two similar but different species are put together is truly a strength? Is the difference between both only as simple as fur colour? Are the superficial differences representative of something deeper? We can see clearly that when even small numbers of a similar but different species are involved they can introduce profound change in the habitat of the other. Likewise although we may rub shoulder to shoulder in our towns and cities with new arrivals, many of which no doubt mean us no harm, the end result, however will be the same, ultimately it will mean our dispossession and relegation to isolated pockets, even if they adopt some form of cultural assimilation, their eventual weight of numbers alone, ensure native alienation and disaffection.