Meet Britain's most unpopular invader.
The shake and crinkle of a bag, followed by a skimper, a flash of fluff, and the approach of a hesitant set of whiskers. Grey squirrels have almost all the characteristics of a popular animal: they are cute, fluffy, and small, and are often one of the first wild animals children interact with. But the curiosity of these Sciurids has done little for their reputation. An unwilling invader from the Americas, they join the ranks of other much-loved UK aliens, including the edible dormouse, muntjac deer and brown hare.
However, there’s more than just fluff to the charm of these rodents. They are not always greeted with the warmest of welcomes, and for good reason. Red squirrels, Britain’s native squirrel and the innocent mascot of the small European mammal, has been declining in the UK as a direct result of the rival greys. Not only do the larger greys directly outcompete the reds for resources, but they’re also the carrier of squirrel-pox, a disease that only affects the reds.
Unfortunately, this leaves wildlife workers with a difficult decision to make: to help the greys is often seen as an act to condemn the reds. This feeling has been carried across into UK legislation, with the most recent changes preventing wildlife rescue centres from releasing grey squirrels, leaving no other option but euthanisation. Once an animal is given the pest label, it can be almost impossible to be seen as anything else, but how many grey squirrel lives is a red squirrel worth?
Controversy aside, grey squirrels represent a crucial moment in my photographic journey. At hearing the news about my first ever trip overseas, a biological excursion to Borneo no less, I decided then and there that I needed to upgrade my very overused bridge camera, and ascend to the big leagues of DSLRs. Arming myself with the flagship entry-level model of the time and a couple cheap lenses, I had three months to get my eye in on this fancy bit of kit. After reading about exposure triangles and taking photos of my apartment interior for a few days, I decided I needed an animal subject for some real world practice. Up to this point, my experience with animal photography began and ended with pet pics and zoo trips, but what I required was a longer term yet still unpredictable model.
Enter the squirrels. Through all seasons, moods and interactions, what began as training has ended up as a fondness for the ordinary and overlooked.
Squirrels have also taught me one of my most cherished personal rules for wildlife photography: a grey squirrel is no less intrinsically interesting than a polar bear, but a picture of something common is much less interesting than a picture of something rare. In this I see a challenge, to capture moments of common and everyday species in new ways.
These humble rodents have seen the birth of my love of photography, and have forced me to experiment again-and-again, to capture something rarely seen while remaining whole-heartedly squirrel ∎