A violent storm raged here in the early hours of yesterday morning and my bedroom window, which I keep open at night in all but the absolute coldest weather, twanged off the catch, crashed against the wall and almost smashed. Outside, in a strange cold blue light, the trees moved like enthusiastic metalheads on the front row of a concert. I knew that it would not be a good morning to go out and look for squirrels, which is what I’d planned to do. I’d even written it on the blackboard in my kitchen, just so I didn’t forget: “Go out and look for squirrels!”, right there beneath “Apples”, “Trousers, mend” and “Visit Devil pub”. Squirrels are not greatly keen on high winds, which, along with having a deep and nagging impulse to climb trees, is something they have in common with me. Squirrels have, however, found their uses for the wind, even if it can hamper their arboreal progress. In his 1607 book History Of Foure-Footed Beastes, Edward Topsell writes of the squirrel: “… for when hunger or some convenient prey of meat constraineth her to pass over a river, she seeketh out some rinde or small bark of a tree, which she setteth upon the water or goeth into it, and holding her tail like a sail letteth the wind drive her to the other side”.
I haven’t seen any of the squirrels around my way using their tails as sails to cross the River Dart, which widens out as it leaves the moor and approaches my house, and is even wider than normal with the recent heavy rainfall, but they do seem to have been having one helleth of a good time recently. Two mysterious things appeared on my lawn recently: a couple of dozen small holes, and, amidst the ever-accumulating leaf mulch, numerous spiky half-opened horse chestnut shells. I discovered that the former were the work of an industrious green woodpecker. The latter took me a bit longer to get to the bottom of, as I don’t have a horse chestnut tree in or near the garden. After a week or so I realised these shells were the work of picnicking local squirrels, for whom autumn seems to be what spring is to most other wildlife: a time to live the high life. They’re everywhere right now, and just after dawn the countryside here can have the atmosphere of the dying embers of a squirrel party: some squirrels zig-zagging about in a weary way, not really looking where they’re going, others still dancing and trying to keep the night alive.
They’re not too bad at crossing the lane in spring and summer but recently they’ve got very kamikaze about it. I’ve seen a couple of dead ones with their paws over their eyes, as if hiding from a scene in a squirrel horror movie. Sometimes, even when they’re not on the tarmac, merely near it, I find myself beeping my horn at them, just so they might think of the road in future as a place where beeps happen. It doesn’t appear to help. The other week I drove for an entire half mile behind one, as if queuing behind a small furry tractor.
I’ve never seen autumn in Britain looking more psychedelic than it does right now here in Devon. The crispy golds, lysergic coppers and burnished reds of the trees make this part of the South Hams their Haight Ashbury right now. People call them tree rats, and there’s a lingering resentment of them due to the way they helped wipe out their smaller, less bolshy red counterparts in the early part of the last century, but I can’t help relating to them on many levels: like me, they are unashamed tree huggers who love to snack, tend to get up very early, have a lull late morning then emerge again at lunchtime, in desperate need of crunchy food.
I went out to watch a few of them in early afternoon and they seemed to be making up for the air time they’d missed during the high winds of the early morning. I saw one skid daintily for a dozen feet across what was surely nothing more than leaf, dozens of feet above my head in the dying canopy of a beech I liked the way its friend below on the ground flung its body suddenly violently in the opposite direction to the one it had been running, like a flouncy teenager having a sudden, hormonally-influenced change of mind, but in a cute way. Grey squirrels are so common now, it’s easy to take them for granted, which is perhaps why we walk around oblivious to what a genuinely interesting life they have. “Some of their more fantastic activities reported in the press include riding on the backs of lambs, fighting rabbits and hares, causing short circuits by scaling pylons, and chewing the toes of lead statues,” wrote Monica Shorten in her New Naturalist book, Squirrels, in 1954, which was not only the height of the Baby Boomer era for humans but for British grey squirrels. A colony in Regent Park died during the Second World War from what Shorten details intriguingly as “suspected chocolate” but on the whole that was the era when they really began to thrive.
You think of squirrels as travelling in pairs at most, but Shorten details an incident of a lorry driver seeing a small army of at least thirteen grey squirrels charging towards him across a field. The largest gang of them I’ve seen quite obviously working together is six. I have still yet to see my first red. Even in the early 50s, there were only one pair per 70 acres in the area where I live, and I am currently trying to control a seething resentment towards a friend who rarely gets out for country walks, but claimed to spot one hanging out on a wall near some traffic lights in town last month.
I was quite surprised to see all of the trees behind my house still standing, after witnessing the fearsome strength of the wind. We’ve lost quite a few recently in weather like this: a red oak, for example, which woke me up in the night as it was ripped up from its roots, and sounded like what I imagine thunder might sound like if it plugged in after many years as being acoustic folk thunder, and an ash that came down on my phone line in spring. My tree surgeon friend David tells me that this wasn't just down to the wind but moisture build up in the catkins near the top of the ash. An hour or so after it fell, a policeman called at my house to say a 999 call from my property had been recorded. I said that would be impossible, as I had no working phone, but he asked to come in anyway, presumably just to check I didn’t have anyone tied up at gunpoint in my cellar. He seemed satisfied, especially having realised I don't have a cellar, and I called BT. What ensued was the following conversation:
Me: “A tree’s come down on my phone line.”
BT: “Ok. First we have to check if there’s a fault on the line.”
Me: “I can save you the trouble. There is definitely a fault on the line. There’s a huge tree on it.”
As can so often happen with telephone and Internet companies, a farce developed and raged on for a lengthy and precious period of my life. I was informed on a couple of occasions that their engineer was on site fixing the problem, but when I lifted up large leaves and nettles to look for him there was no sign. With each progressive call, I started to get a stronger sense that I was experiencing a classic example of linesplaining. When an engineer finally arrived he revealed that when phone lines earth, they often automatically send a call to the emergency services. Effectively the ash tree had called 999 as it breathed its last. It was a poignant image, only shattered slightly by a friend of mine who suggested it was “trying to get hold of special branch”. Apparently the incident was fortuitous, in a way, as my line had been in a pretty bad state, even before a huge tree was on it. “It’s been chewed to ribbons by all these squirrels around here,” the engineer explained.
Read my new book.
Grey squirrel illustration by Sophie Gilmore. See more of her work here.