To see the once ubiquitous red squirrel, you have to travel to the edges of the earth… or at least to the peripheries of the UK – the Isle of Wight off the south coast, the north of England and into Scotland, the coast beside Liverpool or out to the north-western edge of Wales.
On Saturday we took a walk around Church Island. This is a rocky Scot’s pine and beech woodland which falls roundly towards the sea, just below Menai Bridge which separates the island of Anglesey from the Welsh mainland. Showers pause and pass and the sun shines through the beech trunks to the orange carpet they have laid below. Chaffinch flocks rise to the boughs like the leaves in reverse, jays scream from the treetops.
Suddenly, a clatter of claws on bark accompanies a red blur skittering up a tree. Our eyes drawn, another manifests beneath, less startled by our presence, alert but continuing in its autumn task of gathering and bequeathing beech mast to the earth. The first leaps and soars from tree to tree, chuting down branches and making its way far away into the woodland, at home in a dimension we can not navigate. We stand motionless and watch the second forage its way steadily out of sight in fits and starts, burrows and bounds, scrabbles, scampers and scarpers.
This is the first time I have watched – as opposed to glimpsed – our native red squirrels in a wild setting.
The next day, we are treated to three more foraging beside the Straits at Plas Newydd, a National Trust property further along the coast. One is a darker morph who draws the aggression of another, larger red. They take to a tree, tails flailing in their wake, and play a game of cat and mouse around the bole, each facing earth or air but sliding sideways crab-like to flee or follow, to gain or lose sight of the other. The tension settles when the darker squirrel shoots higher, soon to return to the manicured grass to forage unhindered a little distance apart. Two more squirrels are startled and sent skywards up into the canopies as we look out over the wall separating the property from the Straits below.
The red squirrels are smaller than the greys but they look rounder, softer, longer in fact. We watched them come to a comical pause, paws outstretched as though skidding to a halt, with a look of a disaster near-averted, before scampering on to the next nut or seed. The tufts above their ears are delightful, their white bellies immaculate. A lifetime spent with greys is no preparation for the pleasure of watching the native species which is now so threatened.
Anglesey is a great place to visit. Fullstop. But especially it is a great place to see red squirrels in the wild. The Red Squirrels Wales project are doing excellent work in protecting and expanding the range of this species and there are several woodlands where you have a good chance of seeing them. Autumn is also a perfect time of year to go looking – the leaves are thin and the squirrels busy on the forest floor preparing their winter hoards.