The Big Five
28 March, 2013
Well given the recent weather it will come as no surprise that I have not been out and about much in the last week. So I will take this opportunity to mention a new campaign encouraging people to get out and enjoy our outstanding wildlife by focusing on five of the country’s favourite wild animals.
The Scotland’s Big 5 campaign has been launched by Scottish Natural Heritage and Visit Scotland, and forms part of the Year of Natural Scotland. The five are all high-profile species that closely associated with Scotland and that people stand a good chance of seeing in the wild. They are the red deer, otter, common seal, golden eagle and red squirrel.
One of the best places to see red squirrels is at Spynie Palace, near Elgin. Historic Scotland photographer Duncan Peat captured an image of one close to the palace.
Before grey squirrels were introduced from America to the UK in the late 1800s, red squirrels were once the only species in Europe. Their numbers have declined historically, although the population in Scotland has increased slightly in recent years, probably due to the expansion of tree cover. Today it is estimated at 120,000 – 75 per cent of the UK total.
The grey and red squirrel are not directly antagonistic, and violent conflict between these species is not a factor in the decline in the latter’s population. Greys do, however, out compete reds mainly because greys can easily digest acorns, while reds cannot. Greys also carry a disease, the squirrel parapoxvirus, that does not appear to affect their health but will often kill reds.
At this time of year, squirrels spend most of their time in their nests or dreys, venturing out only occasionally to feed of nuts and seeds buried earlier in the year. They never recover all the seed that they cache, so some always survives to germinate and grow as new trees, often at a considerable distance from the parent. This is especially important for large-seeded trees such as oak and hazel, which rely on squirrels to disperse their acorns and nuts.
Historically red squirrels were hunted both to eat and for their fur. In 1430, the parliament of James 1 records “ … it is decreed and ordained that no man shall wear clothes of silk, nor furs of pine-martens, beech-martens, purray nor great or richer furs, except only knights and lords of 200 merks at least of yearly rent, and their eldest son and their heirs, without special leave of the king …”. Purray or ‘pure’ was the white fur taken from the chest of the red squirrel.
Mary Queen of Scots had a pet squirrel of which she was very fond.