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NATURE Squirrelling away for leaner times

Outdoor Living

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

News came to me of an unusual animal; a red squirrel with a white tail. ‘Like neon,’ said a friend, ‘glowing in the dusk.’
I would have to see this for myself. I took careful note of his directions, for squirrels generally hold small territories, then took James and went to look, he full of excitement and I rather more pragmatic, aware that the eager imagination of my friend often endows wild creatures with attributes not so readily provided by nature.
We set out early, knowing well how the days close quickly in the shade of spruce. Within minutes we found unmistakeable signs of squirrel activity. New hazel nuts, not yet ripened, pulled from the bushes, bitten into and stripped of their milky kernels, littered the path. We were on the right track.
But red squirrels are nothing if they are not cautious. Even in Coole Park in Galway, where they are used to people walking beneath them, they do their best to stay hidden. Here they see someone every second week, or even less, and prefer to stay out of sight. The best chance of seeing them is to find a comfortable log that offers a good vantage point and sit there for the afternoon. What I need is a fortune, in order to buy up some free time. Then we could sit.
The sound of raindrops came to our ears, although the clouds were high and broken, and moving quickly. It came from just a small area, where a large, ivy covered spruce tree stood in a half-clearing. The sound was made by falling clippings that were being nibbled from a spruce cone as a squirrel, hidden in the tree top, fed on the oil-rich kernels. The clippings, each the size of a Euro coin, fell thick and fast, bouncing and pattering off twigs and leaves as they headed for the ground. We could imagine how quickly the squirrel’s teeth were working.
Then came a pause and a moment later a light thud, as the discarded cone landed on the soft moss at the foot of the tree. We picked it up and examined it. I pulled at the few scales that remained at its tip. Woody and tough, they were impossible to break off. Even my sharp-bladed knife had difficulty in trimming them away. And yet the squirrel sheared them off with ease.
Intrigued, we searched around and soon found an intact cone. Long and cylindrical, it was endowed with those tough, overlapping scales along its length. We noted their arrangement, how they were laid in a perfect spiral rather than being placed at random, as if the tree itself were a mathematician acquainted with Fibonacci.
Fifty feet above us our squirrel was already at work on another cone, chewing quickly and raining down a shower of scales on our heads. This is how they spend their autumn days, fattening up for the leaner times ahead. Not only do they feed though, they also store large numbers of cones in any suitable place. A hole in a tree, a niche beneath a rock or a crevice in the roof space of an abandoned house, as long as it is dry it will offer space for a stash of winter food.
Although James and I craned our necks to get a glimpse of our little friend overhead we were unable, and apart from the stream of cone parts we would never have known he was there. We moved on to find another squirrel, noting a badger’s latrine overflowing with soft dung and an inviting patch of wood mushrooms growing nearby, which we left on account of the numerous black flies intently flying from one to the other.
The centre of the wood holds a small hawthorn thicket where squirrels can often be seen. And here, indeed, we found one feeding on barely ripe berries. At first it chattered at our approach, but soon settled down to snack when we stopped a short distance off. We could only marvel at its agility as it clambered through the finest of twigs with greater ease than we could walk the ground. At least it was a squirrel, even without the white tail we wanted to see.
As the light began to fade we turned back toward the car, with noises of the coming night magnified by the quiet of the woods. Deer bounded across our path. Pigeons clattered in to roost. A small animal scampered away into the half dark, its tail glowing softly. Most unusual. Like neon.