Last week, when I was watching this delightful red squirrel feeding in a sycamore on the banks of the river Eden near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria, I could see exactly why people find this species so much more attractive than their grey cousins, and also why they were so ruthlessly persecuted back in the 19th. and early 20th. century.
Aside from their coat colour, magnificent tails and tufted ears, it's the sheer speed and agility of the native species that's particularly striking. In comparison, grey squirrels often look corpulent . Maybe that's more than a little due to the red's spartan diet of seeds, buds and bark, unlike grey's menu which includes more or less anything and everything, especially in urban areas where there's plenty to scavenge from waste bins.
But in the past it was the red's liking for buds and bark that began its downfall. While I watched this one stripped bark off several branches and it was this kind of behaviour that led to intensive culling in the first half of the 20th. century, at the instigation of estate owners. The Highland Squirrel Club, formed in 1903, succeeded in exterminating 85,000 red squirrels over the next 30 years and that kind of persecution, together with habitat destruction, must have played a role in making the red squirrel population more vulnerable to the spread of their grey counterparts.