I remember as a child every Autumn as a family we would take a long walk to our favourite chestnut tree in the New Forest to harvest its nuts ready for Christmas. (As some of you know the New Forest is my original stomping ground before I moved to Cornwall to follow a career in art.) It was on one of these faithful walks when my mum pointed out a Red Squirrel high in the branches munching its way through one of the nuts. From that day on I was always looking for their distinct red bushy tails and long pointed ears, they quickly became one of my favourite creatures. Though sadly as I grew the red squirrel became harder and harder to find until they almost disappeared entirely. It has long been thought that there are no longer Red Squirrels in the New Forest but there are still a few breeding pairs deep in the forest, spotted now and again.
It truly saddens my heart to see such beautiful animals drawn to near extinction in the UK due to human intervention introducing the Grey Squirrel to its shores. The Red Squirrel is the UK's only native squirrel species and was once a common sight. For decades they’ve been in decline in the UK and are only thriving in several places where they are looked after thanks to careful conservation and habitat management. Once the Red Squirrel population was 3.5 million and have now dropped to 15,000 with population strongholds in Scotland, Northumberland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Lake District as well as on islands such as Brownsea.
All is not lost research suggests that Pine Martens help control the numbers of Grey Squirrels allowing the Red Squirrel population to recover. Such has been found in Ireland where pine martens were introduced into the forests to rebalance the ecosystem since it was destroyed by mankind in the 1800's. So why do Pine Martens have a positive effect on the population of Red Squirrels?
Pine martens have a varied diet and will eat what is plentiful. This may include small mammals, fruit and berries, birds, eggs, insects and carrion. People also tempt them with peanuts, raisins, peanut butter, jam and even cake! Dietary studies have shown that Red Squirrels are very rarely eaten by Pine Martens. Recent research in Ireland has shown that pine martens are more likely to eat non-native grey squirrels than native Red Squirrels. Red squirrels are smaller and lighter than Grey Squirrels and can easily escape to small branches away from pine martens, whereas Grey Squirrels are larger and heavier and spend more time on the ground – making them an easier target for a hungry pine marten. I am not one to see anything hurt but the reintroduction of Pine Martens into England could put the Red Squirrel on an even playing field and rebalance our ecosystem within our forest. Plus who doesn't want to see a Pine Marten in the wild in England?
Unfortunately, like the red squirrel, the pine martens population has also been confined to Scotland and Ireland, with just a few scattered populations in England and Wales. With the Pine Martins population being so isolated they are very unlikely to recover naturally without intervention. While the population in Scotland is spreading southwards, it is unlikely that it will spread to re-colonise central and southern England and Wales. This is due to the large conurbations in the north-west and central England and a lack of suitable habitat in some of these areas. Translocating animals from healthy populations to suitable areas of England and Wales is the only way to restore viable pine marten populations to England and Wales. In doing so it would aid the population of Red Squirrels who also inhabit the same areas. There is still hope for the Red Squirrel if humans can aid mother nature in restoring our woodlands back to their natural eco-balance.
With this mind, I decided to create a piece of artwork to spread awareness of the red squirrel and share in their joy and hopes for the future.
The Last Acorn
A mother Red Squirrel struggles to find food for its young, the only one to survive in her second litter of the year. What should have been a plentiful harvest has been stripped by the Grey Squirrel and only mega pickings can be found. Worn thin and tired the mother Squirrel has little hope for its young, who must put on considerable weight before winter, but this determined mother hasn't given up. It happens across what seems to be the last acorn hanging on an ancient oak tree, whose branches have become adorned by moss. She has carried the young from tree to tree and now finds she is a branch too low and as much as she tries to stretch it is just out of reach. A male Red Squirrel scurries along the higher branch and sees the mother struggling. The male Red Squirrel normally takes no part in the raising of young, so this male carries on and clambers down to reach the acorn. Only to find it can only manage to touch it with its fingertips and not grab hold. The mother and young Squirrel perk up, full of hope they reach up as the acorn looks fit to fall into their paws.
For information about this piece and more photos check it out on my website at https://www.nsltextileart.co.uk/product-page/the-last-acorn