Apr 13 2012 by Jean Pedder, Stirling Observer Friday
Dear Editor – The almost daily venomous attack by conservationists on grey squirrels for not being native to this country is dutifully followed up by the claim that red squirrels are native to Scotland.
However, this may not be so in terms of the conservationists criterion for a native species, which is that they are presumed to be those that are present in Great Britain by natural means.
In general they migrated (or were transported by other species) into Great Britain after the last Ice Age, without the assistance of humans.
There certainly is some pretty shaky evidential snapshots of them existing in England but never in Scotland.
It is understood that some of the caves in the Wye Valley were subjected to flooding following the retreat of the last ice age when the North Sea met the Atlantic.
It could be feasible that the remains of bones and significantly, marine molluscs, found there and at the Undercliffe in the Isle of Wight might be no more than debris washed in from continental Europe during that period of immense upheaval.
For some time I have been looking into the use of squirrel fur during the early medieval period and can find no record of indigenous squirrel fur being used in Great Britain.
In the later middle-ages the central distribution point for squirrel skins from the Baltics, Scandinavia and Russia was Bruges, from where skins were imported to Great Britain via London and the Eastern Ports including York which was at that time navigable from the North Sea.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the first mention of squirrels in England was by Hugh, the Bishop of Lincoln, (later St Hugh) towards the end of the 12th century.
So a far more likely explanation for the arrival of the red squirrel in the British Isles – rather than being regarded as native on the strength of bone finds that appear not to have belonged to the same sub species – is that they were imported as live animals from mainland Europe because of the well known and recorded price fluctuations of European skins that threatened the livelihood of skinners and tanners throughout Great Britain.
This would explain the thousands of years of no squirrel records in England and red squirrels establishing themselves in the later middle-ages, probably in similar circumstances to that of the American mink nowadays.
It is also understood that red squirrels were kept in captivity in Ireland for their fur, which was exported to mainland Britain.
Rather than the red squirrel being a native species there is a much better case for regarding it as being introduced on a commercial basis by fur industry entrepreneurs as a grow-our-own-fur enterprise that failed because the thicker fur from colder parts of Europe and Russia was more desirable by the end user.
These furs were known as greywerk, miniver, gris, and vair, all continental names.
When I recently asked Scottish Natural Heritage what evidence they had that the red squirrel was native to Scotland, they replied: “We note, but do not agree with your contention that red squirrels are not native”. Obviously they have no evidence; only a belief.
Perhaps they also believe in fairies. Yours etc.,