Remember the Tufty Club? No, of course you don't, you're all way too young. Well, let me enlighten you. The Tufty Club was the hub of a road awareness campaign run during the 1950s and 60s, its figurehead, inspiration and main star being Tufty Fluffytail, a red squirrel. Children were urged to join the club and received a badge for their trouble. It was very successful and certainly engendered in us kids the need to be careful when crossing the road. The fact the powers that be chose a red squirrel to connect with children goes to show what a familiar and endearing creature it once was; every wood and park had them. Tufty and his pals held sway until the introduction of that Darth Vader in the making the Green Cross Code Man, aka David Prowse. It wasn't the same.
Red squirrels are, as we all know, our native squirrel, the only true wild squirrel inhabiting our countryside. Only it is now absent from most of it. Vast tracts of lowland Britain are now populated only by the alien North American imposter, that rascally rodent the grey, who by a combination of bullying tactics and carrier of a nasty virus has out-competed and eradicate our beloved Tufty from our consciousness and canopies. The sad and sorry fact is that there are generations of young people in England, south of Cumbria and Northumberland, who have never seen a red squirrel in the wild and more worryingly believe the ubiquitous grey to be the true proclaimer to the tree rodent throne. So, finding ourselves in Speyside we determined to put matters right and find our very own Tufty, representing the first I would have seen in the wild since, oh I dunno, 1968 perhaps.
What better place to commence our search then but the magnificent RSPB reserve at Loch Garten famous for its breeding ospreys. And we didn't have to wait long before we espied one of these endearing little mammals plundering the sunflower seeds from the bird feeders just outside the visitor centre. Such a cheeky and engaging little character and so agile, able to hang upside down gripping the tree trunk only with its hind claws as it contrived to force its way into the bounty. So much more appealing than those 2nd rate usurpers that plague our southern woodlands. It’s comforting to know these lovely animals still manage to find refuge in this wonderful ancient Caledonian woodland, although we were told that greys have been sighted around Perth and are moving north apace. Unfortunately it seems the only answer in order to prevent further loss of the reds is to shoot the greys (they’re good eating apparently – slightly nutty flavour perhaps?), and licenced hunters are busy doing just that. The Scottish Natural Heritage website has much interesting information about the current strategy of control, but despite proactive intervention and the setting up of special red squirrel preserves the future doesn’t look too healthy. Squirrel pox is already hitting populations of reds in southern Scotland and could move north with devastating effect. Once more we see the damage caused by the ignorance of man when meddling with the natural world.
So Well Adapted to their Environment
What a Gorgeous Tail
Earlier in our travels around Scotland, prior to ferrying to Orkney, we went for a late evening stroll around quite lanes a few miles west of Inverness. There from a stand of pine and birch we heard a strange sound, a spitting and snarling, that could only have been made by a feline. The noise felt large if you catch my drift and came to us only twice. Despite standing stock still and scanning the dusk enshrouded slopes through binoculars we couldn’t see anything. It could have been a couple of moggies having a spat, but this was a long way from any real kind of civilisation, a couple of farmhouses widely spaced and that’s all. Or, it may, just may have been a wildcat. We will never know. But of course it is now doubtful if there is such a thing as a genuinely wild British wildcat. Most, if not all, the population has been hybridised to the point of eradication as a pure species. Even if we did hear a ‘wildcat’ it would probably have been to a greater or lesser degree tainted with genes from feral cats which far outnumber wildcats nowadays. My friend Nick is currently undertaking an around the globe search for the world’s big cats, and his recent search for a wildcat within these shores is well documented in his blog Compare the Marsh Tit (see the link to the right of this post). There within you will also find much more information about the dilemma now facing conservationists regarding wildcats, another native species we’ve sadly allowed to virtually disappear.
I find it strangely ironic that within the UK we, yes that’s you and me, do not seem capable of raising sufficient steam, awareness, money or political will to solve these problems that are happening now, here, on our doorstep. Red squirrels, wildcats, many birds and a host of other animals are in deep trouble. Badgers are culled unnecessarily, hen harriers persecuted unforgivably, hares coursed unscrupulously and now the government is thinking about allowing fox hunting to recommence unbelievably. Yet there is no TV commercials outlining the plight of these creatures, no mainstream cries of protest at the inexcusable situation we have allowed develop in this 21st century, and no countrywide campaign to generate a change in attitude and a catalyst for change. But everyone knows about the plight of the tiger, African elephant and rhino. Quite right, they should. And those causes are worthy and pressing, but let’s not forget the little things inhabiting our own island home. Once these things are gone we will never be able to bring them back. It boils down to ignorance again in that people just are simply unaware of the scale of the problems I guess. Maybe they should bring back Tufty and get the kids loving him again.
Who Could Fail to be Entranced?