It all began 34 million years ago with Protosciurus, the oldest known tree squirrel fossil. The first signs of the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris L.) appeared at the end of the last ice age, almost 10,000 years ago, when the land bridge between Britain and Europe was starting to disappear.
Today, the red squirrel can be found in areas of Scotland (mostly southern), Wales and Ireland, a few habitats in England – Northumberland, Cumbria, Isle of Wight, Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Thetford Forest in Norfolk and Jersey; Europe and Asia, from the Arctic Circle in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south, and from China in the east to Britain in the west. Interestingly, it is only in Britain where the red squirrel is threatened, although some populations in northern Italy are also declining. Both of these areas have also been subject to the release of American grey squirrels.
During the middle ages, sumptuary laws governed the way people dressed and defined social status. Wearing silk, satin, gold or silver cloth, lace, taffeta and furs was the prerogative of knights, their ladies and all who ranked above them. Those who violated the sumptuary laws could be fined, imprisoned or, in the case of the lower classes, put to death. Among the furs restricted to royalty and the nobility were ermine and lettice, the winter livery of stoats and weasels and vair. Vair was the name of red squirrel skins and was one of the two heraldic furs. If one was royal or a very noble lady, one wore slippers made of vair.
Charles Perrault, the French poet, published the story of Cinderella in 1697 and in the original, Prince Charming knew the mystery girl at the ball was of equal rank to him, because the slipper she left behind was made of vair. During the translation to English in 1792, it is thought vair was miss-interpreted as verre and thereafter Cinderella’s squirrel skin slipper became glass.
Records from the 15th and 16th centuries indicate that red squirrel numbers dropped in Scotland and Wales, and by the 18th century the red squirrel had virtually become extinct in Scotland. This decline can largely be attributed to the need for timber in industry, agriculture and war, and the subsequent felling of large areas of woodland.
With a drive to replace the trees that had been lost, new planting in the 19th century boosted red squirrel numbers, and by the start of the 20th century there was a thriving population of red squirrels across Britain. The red squirrel recovered to such an extent that in some places it became known as a pest and between 1903 and 1933 the Highland Squirrel Club recorded the destruction of 82,000 red squirrels! But, during the course of the 20th century, red squirrel numbers plummeted to very low levels, not helped by further tree clearances during both world wars, the spread of the American grey squirrel and outbreaks of two fatal diseases – Coccidiosis and Parapox virus.
Today the future of our only native species of squirrel is gravely threatened.
It was 1876 when the first pair of grey squirrels was released in Henbury Park, Cheshire by a Mr. Brocklehurst, and the appeal of these ‘new’ squirrels spread with further releases during the following fifty years. The first grey squirrels in Scotland were released in 1892, at sites including Edinburgh Zoo.