Red Squirrel, Sciurus Vulgaris
The American Grey Squirrel was introduced to Britain in 1876 by our Victorian ancestors who loved exotic animals. Being a larger and more adaptable cousin of the native Red Squirrel, it soon started out-competing them for food and habitat. It also carries a deadly squirrel pox - a skin disease that the British Red is unfortunately susceptible to and once affected, the disease will spread over its body eventually reaching its mouth and paws, making it impossible to eat anything. It can take a week for an infected Red Squirrel to starve to death. We now only have very few left, mainly residing in the Scottish Highlands, the Peak District and small British islands where slowly but surely, conservation efforts are playing a part in preserving the beloved symbol of the Red Squirrel.
Day One: Glenmore
On Tuesday 29th October 2013, I visited Aviemore in the Cairngorm National Park, Scotland to go in search of the charismatic Red Squirrel. I was treated to a ﬂurry of Pine and Birch with an assortment of orange and yellow foliage. It was straight away clear why the Scottish highlands are one of the only places where this species on the brink, is left to roam free.
I left my hotel early the next day, wrapped up for arctic conditions, and braved the Scottish Autumnal weather feeling nervous but determined. I had two clear days up in Aviemore and for the ﬁrst day I had decided to visit the Glenmore Cafe, as featured on AutumnWatch 2012, as I knew they had feeders with regular sightings of Red Squirrels. This also gave me a chance to scope out the area as I had paid to use the Rothiemurchus Red Squirrel hide on the second day for which I needed to meet the ranger at the main Rothiemurchus Visiter Centre. The bus journey proved successful and I passed right by the Visiter Centre and then by following the journey on my iPhone's maps app, I knew to get off on the approach to Loch Morlich.
It must have been meant to be! As I walked round the Glenmore Cafe and spotted a bird feeder or two, I had my ﬁrst sighting of those tufty red ears and bright bushy tail of the Red Squirrel as it ran right in front of me and went for a peanut from the feeder. This is a creature that I have wanted to see ever since I was ﬁrst inspired to photograph the natural world - my heart began pumping furiously and the adrenalin kicked in as I turned my lens towards the squirrel and positioned myself so as to get a clean background.
I was photographing this incredible mammal for about ﬁve minutes before a second showed up. They ran around each other for a few seconds before the ﬁrst Squirrel thought it best to leave. I was intrigued to ﬁnd that this food source was so important to them that they had become quite territorial to it. The second squirrel gave me a few opportunities to photograph before it too disappeared into the undergrowth. The whole experience barely lasted ten minutes and yet I was left with a moment I would never forget. I later returned to the feeder around one o'clock and was treated to the presence of another and this time younger looking squirrel.
I spoke to the staff at the Glenmore Centre about the Red Squirrels and was told that they were seen mainly in the morning and early afternoon and then would normally return later in the afternoon closer to four o'clock. I decided therefore to walk out into the Glenmore woodlands and see if I could ﬁnd one myself. I was treated to wide open Forrest's of pine that wouldn't look out of place in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and apart from the occasional backpacker, it was completely deserted. Unfortunately that went for wildlife too. It was shocking to realise that you were very unlikely to spot a red Squirrel unless your by a dedicated feeder at the right time; especially as when you walk anywhere in Britain that remotely tree covered, you are bound to see a little grey face peering down at you from the foliage. The Red Squirrel used to be just as common as the American Grey and now it has been cut right down to size. Even after researching the plight of the Red Squirrel for quite some time, I don't think I appreciated how scarce they really were.
I returned to the feeder around half three, sat down and wrapped up as best as I could as the temperature had dropped and the wind speed risen. I was doubtful considering the sudden gale that had blown up, that they would return. Unfortunately my hunch must have been right as by about quarter to ﬁve I decided to call it a day. I was not however, disheartened and looked forward to continuing my adventure the next day with a dedicated and hopefully warm hide...how wrong I would be.
Day two: Rothiemurchus
I woke up the second day with the same excitement as the day before and couldn't help but smile to myself as I opened the curtains to be greeted with the sight of mountains in the distance and rabbits feeding on the grass below me. As I walked towards the bus wrapped up in every item of clothing I possessed, whatever hope I lost at the sight of the dreary, cold weather was rekindled in an instant as a Red Squirrel bounded across in front of me. It was with a heavy heart that I tore myself away to go catch the bus but in the hope that this was an omen for a good day of photography ahead.
I misjudged the time it would take to get to Rothiemurchus Visiter Centre and after less than ﬁve minutes I was pressing the bell to get off the bus. I had managed to arrive an hour early on what must have been the coldest day of the year so far. I had no choice but to explore the area in order to keep moving. My spirits were starting to dwindle as my hands turned blue and my nose reddened and yet I could never be unhappy in such a beautiful part of the world.
Eventually the time passed and I was very thankful to meet the ranger who was to drive me down to the hide in a very warm Land Rover. The hide was at least a ten minute drive away from the main centre and was situated deep in the Forrest, close to Loch an Eilein. I wasn't sure what I was expecting but I was greeted with the sight of a small two person capacity shed. I helped the warden lower the front ﬂap of the hide so that I was exposed to an open stretch of land between the trees with logs and branches lying around for the Squirrels to run around on. I was the only person to have booked the hide so I had it all to myself till late afternoon. It was at this point that the heavens opened and the rain began to soak everything around me, drenching my hopes and spirit. I braved the weather and began spreading nuts around the branches in good photographic spots.
It didn't take long before I spotted dashes of red running around the tops of trees in the distance. Slowly but surely one approached. The adrenaline was running but was soon dashed as I struggled to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze anything. The sky had turned to a murky grey which didn't allow for much light in the clearing under the trees. I was forced to push my ISO limits further than is comfortable which resulted in nothing but soft, dull and overly grainy images. I tried not to lose hope and to use what I had. I purposely tried photographing them so as to cause blurred movement but it mainly looked like mistakes rather than being artistic.It was a hard, cold day and I was left feeling a mixture of joy for having seen four or ﬁve Red Squirrels in close proximity, and annoyance at myself for not getting what I needed. The truth of it comes down to the fact that wildlife photography is hard. Then add the limitation of only two days, the unpredictable weather of the Scottish Highlands and the fact that the subject is so scarily scarce these days.
Even though I had not got all the shots that I had hoped for, I had gained a knowledge of an incredible species with a tragic history. I got to share in their lives if only for a short time, watch their characteristics and learn their habits. It was a truly rewarding experience and one that I would not hesitate to do again.