Wildlife Rehabilitator Polly Pullar shares her experiences of educating red squirrels and other animals in a new book. Gayle Ritchie reports.
Cheeky bundles and bushy-tailed – red squirrels are one of the nation’s most adored mammals.
However, we haven’t always been so fond of fluffy creatures.
They were legal to cut until 1981, and historically they have been hunted and killed in large numbers due to the perceived threat they posed to forestry.
Today, while they thrive in parts of Scotland, red squirrels remain in a precarious state, and it’s a race against time to ensure the creatures’ long-term survival.
Aberfeldy wildlife rehabilitator, writer and photographer Polly Pullar has made caring for and protecting red squirrels – and other animals – her life’s work.
Since her childhood, she has taken in many injured and orphaned red squirrels and other wildlife and put them back into the wild.
Growing up in Ardnamurchan on the west coast, she was wild about wildlife almost from birth, but her passion for red squirrels was sparked when she moved to Perthshire.
Hating her stay at a girls’ boarding school near Dunkeld, she says the creatures “saved” her.
“I was homesick until the wonderful moment I saw my first red squirrel in the large school garden – that squirrel saved me, and I became totally engrossed in the squirrels and I spent all of my playtime building dens from where I could watch the squirrels, and the other rich wildlife in the area, ”she recalls.
In her new book, A Scurry of Squirrels, Polly shares her experiences and love for the red squirrel and, with reference to history and natural history, explores how our perceptions of animals have changed.
In the context of her farm in Highland Perthshire, where she works continuously to encourage wildlife, large and small, the book shows how nature can recover if we give it a chance.
In just two decades, Polly’s habitat restoration work has yielded spectacular results, and large numbers of squirrels (she recently counted 15!) And other animals visit her daily.
“Having focused my last book on the pine marten and spent much of my adult life working closely with red squirrels, it seemed like a very natural progression to focus this book on these fabulous arboreal acrobats. “says Polly.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to know them quite well, and most years I take in orphan kits or injured adult squirrels for the purpose of eventual return to the wild.”
Polly finds it hard to understand that until 1981, when red squirrels were added to the Wildlife and Countryside Act and became legally protected, it was still, in his own words, “perfectly acceptable” to take them down.
“People thought they were a threat to the trees and they were hunted for their tails with a bounty paid for squirrel tails,” she says. “Some keepers actually cut the tail and freed the squirrel thinking they could get paid twice!”
“But squirrels, of course, do not repel their tails, and as the tail acts almost like a fifth vital limb and is used as a balancing pole for a tightrope walker, as a parasol, and as an umbrella to signal the mood and intention to other squirrels and threatening predators, it must have been catastrophic.
“Squirrels were also hunted for their fur. Indeed, in Perth Market, a stand set up by the Marquise de Breadalbane had hundreds of skins for sale!
In 1903, Beatrix Potter wrote the Tale of the Nutkin Squirrel which was extremely successful in endearing the creature.
However, at the same time, the Highland Squirrel Club’s mission was to get rid of squirrels; between 1903 and 1929, they shot down 82,000.
“There were all kinds of organizations trying to get rid of red squirrels, whether by shooting, trapping or using catapults,” says Polly.
“It’s amazing to see how perceptions change and thank goodness they change. They were once viewed as enemies and now they are viewed as darlings.
“And why wouldn’t you love such a charming little rodent?” It’s surprisingly acrobatic – a sylvan tightrope walker, incredibly attractive with his beautiful auburn coat and nice tail, and also very cheeky and mischievous, full of demons.
People thought they were a threat to the trees and they were hunted for their tails with a bounty paid for squirrel tails.
Today, red squirrel populations face drastic and continuing habitat loss. Domestic cats and dogs can pose a huge threat, as can our ever-expanding road network.
But one of the worst threats is the non-native North American gray squirrel, introduced to the UK in the late 1800s as a curiosity to beautify large southern parks and estates. Soon after, the species was brought to Scotland and spread at an alarming rate.
“It’s important to understand that gray doesn’t physically kill red, but it’s bigger, more robust, and able to compete with red for a dwindling natural food source,” says Polly.
“Grays can also eat a lot of foods before they’re ripe enough for the more sensitive digestion of red, so there’s nothing left.
“But worst of all, Gray carries the insidious squirrel pox virus and while it doesn’t affect it, it does transmit it to Red.
“It’s a deadly virus that resembles myxomatosis in rabbits. Basically, it will eliminate a population of reds in a very short period of time. Few, if any, survive.
Scotland holds 70 percent of the UK’s population of around 140,000 to 160,000 red squirrels and in some areas they thrive, but remain in a precarious state and in desperate need of a more connected habitat – safe places to travel between suitable woods.
“It’s a problem. Small, isolated populations find themselves stranded like on an island and quickly become extinct as their habitat shrinks. Their future is not secure,” says Polly.
So what can people do to help? Polly suggests giving them fodder in our gardens, but also not to do so if you live near a road, which could cause them to cross, putting them in danger.
She also thinks keeping dogs under control in wooded areas and putting elastic collars on cats with loud bells will help.
“Squirrels are pretty dumb and often slow on the ground, and cats can easily stalk them – bells can help avoid disasters.”
Having been around squirrels for as long as she can remember, Polly has had many happy – and sad times – times.
Her greatest happiness was the day she released the youngest babies she has ever hand raised, four day old kittens.
“They were bald, deaf, blind and totally dependent on their arrival,” she recalls.
“After a summer dominated by their 24-hour care, I let them go in our garden.
“I had tears in my eyes as they climbed the tallest tree. It was a happy day because I never thought we would ever achieve that goal – to bring them back to the wild, where they belong. “
In terms of the saddest moments, Polly says she’s had “too much”.
Recently, she found a wild squirrel run over by a delivery guy in her driveway.
“I was devastated. Right next to the body was our sign saying, ‘Slow down for the red squirrels.’ I cried.”
Polly, a habitat restoration advocate, planted more than 5,000 trees and dense hedges on her farm 21 years ago and leaves vast areas wild.
“I let nature manage nature. Nettles, dandelions and brambles are priceless.
“Nettles are a vital food plant for many butterfly caterpillars that we adore, dandelions are rich in nectar and pollen and are invaluable to pollinators, while brambles provide so much – habitat and nesting sites, pollen, food and are still alive with dozens of invertebrates. .
“Without invertebrates, the entire food chain is thrown away – and this is part of our grim biodiversity crisis.
“So we need to change our mindsets and stop our tidy gardening. Our frantic mowing and mowing leaves a barren wasteland and impoverished lawn where nothing can thrive. “
Across Scotland, excellent work is being done to restore and preserve habitat and to ensure gray does not enter.
“It’s hard to explain to people that removing gray is essential if we are to keep our reds,” says Polly.
“I’m struggling with the idea of eliminating him too, because the gray is here without fail on his part.
“Humans are inveterate intruders and where we do come in there are always problems – the introduction of species from elsewhere will almost always cause problems and I am sad that the gray is the victim.”
While eager to get the message across that her book isn’t just about squirrels – “there are stories about owls and deer and many other animals I’ve rehabilitated” – Polly hopes it will open hearts and the minds of the readers to the fact that without nature we are nothing ”.
“I can’t wait for them to make that connection, and through the stories I tell, I want them to understand that animals are sentient beings too, and we need to nurture them and their natural environment like never before.
“I often hear the expression ‘wildlife will go elsewhere’ when someone is cutting down a wood, pulling up a hedge or draining a bog. And my question is always “where?” “.
“We must learn to live our life in harmony with nature and not as separate entities.
“I’ve been intrigued lately to learn that many ethnic societies don’t have a word for ‘nature’.
“It’s because they don’t see themselves as separate from him. Doesn’t that say it all? ”