A Red Squirrel Amid the Maple4 minute read

Red Squirrel

A red squirrel features in the eighth and final episode of the nature writing series that describes my encounters with wildlife on a walk from Rosthwaite to Dock Tarn in the Lake District in early August.

Although this piece can be read as a stand-alone piece, you may wish to read the earlier parts first (oldest to most recent): The Clapping Wood PigeonThe Fiery RobinA Peacock ButterflyThe Greenbottle FlyThe Birch and the Blue TitA Sea of Heather, and A Common Frog.

A Red Squirrel Amid the Maple

After having revelled in the unspoiled solitude that is Dock Tarn and its immediate surroundings, I head north in the direction of Grange Fell.

A golden-ringed dragonfly zips hither and yon with unwavering zeal before eventually alighting, with remarkable finesse and careful judgement, on a fine twig of heather. The predator’s svelte figure, which is suited and booted in wasp-like fashion, hangs motionless from its front four feet.

Its eyes, like a pair of chic shades, are a mesmerising tone of metallic mint; and its intricately-veined wings, of which there are four, are held out perpendicular to the body, harnessing, like solar panels, the sun’s plentiful supply of energy.

Moving on, I admire a long-distance view of the Skiddaw Massif. Skiddaw’s peak almost touches the cloud that hovers above it, a cloud so white and opaque that it seems almost palpable, as if I could take a spoon and, as one does with ice cream, scoop away at its semi-solidness.

A little closer by, Watendlath Tarn comes into view, but taking command of my attention are the gripping forms and colours of devil’s bit scabious that are present at various stages of development amongst the grass beside the path along which I walk. The unopened flower heads, consisting of closely-packed spherules, are reminiscent of raspberries, except their colours range from the palest of violets in the most immature among them to a rich lilac-blue in the more mature individuals.

Due to their delectable, exotic fruit-like look, it is almost tempting to pluck one and pop it in my mouth; however, for every spherule—every unopened floret—there is a tiny, pointed, purply puce bract poking out, producing an off-puttingly prickly appearance, although only with regards to edibility. Indeed, the same bracts, in combination with the unopened spherular florets which they cup, make devil’s bit scabious a fine example of one of nature’s most beautiful intricacies, a title which holds even truer when the flowers are in full bloom, each flower head a small-scale simulacrum of a cheerleader’s pompom.

When I reach the col between Great Crag and Grange Fell, I bear left to wander along a path that descends to Rosthwaite. Just as I am about to reach the wooded, lower region of the descent, my eyes detect a movement on the branch of a maple tree, a short, sharp movement that ceases within the blink of an eye.

The instant I see what caused the movement, I freeze, just as it has already done. The animal’s slender, sylphlike figure stands on all fours with astounding steadiness, and its long, lush, bush of a tail is held extended behind it so that it is parallel with but not touching the slightly slanting branch which this rodent is at one with.

Although this small, arboreal mammal lingers in the shade as still as a statue and is partially hidden behind several large, finger-like lobes belonging to the palmate leaves of the maple tree, I can discern the soft, silky, orangey-red fur that coats this bonny being. Additionally, a sliver of sunshine somehow penetrates the tree’s mass of leaves and branches to highlight a lavish, clean white belly.

Suddenly the red squirrel bursts into action, but contrary to its burly, grey cousins who crash noisily through the canopy, the red squirrel slips silently through the trees with effortless grace, its locomotion liquid, its light-footed leaps a visual delight. Every foot placement, despite its lightning-fast pace, is performed with incredible precision. Every twist and turn is accompanied by a counter-balancing tail manoeuvre, every nuance of its motion brought into equilibrium in a way that appears as fluid as flowing water.

From the maple tree, the squirrel springs onto a drystone wall along the top of which it daintily bounds before jumping onto the trunk of an oak. The controlled explosion of activity comes to a halt in a fork where trunk and branch meet, allowing me to approach the squirrel close enough to see the glint in its eye and the outline of its whiskers. Dark, sharp claws protrude from its padded fingers and toes, perfect gripping tools for life in the trees.

Many minutes pass by before the tree-dwelling rodent makes a rapid departure, dashing deftly into the interior of the deciduous wood that is its home.

I seldom see such masterful displays of nimbleness as those executed by our native reds; let us hope that the threatening growth of the population and range of the invasive greys won’t ruin Britain’s reds forever.

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