Black squirrels' slow scamper to dominate

Black squirrel in garden in Bedfordshire Coffee the black squirrel in a Bedfordshire back garden...

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The plight of the disappearing red squirrel is being highlighted in events dedicated to the native British species. But its tormenter, the American grey squirrel, is itself being slowly overwhelmed in parts of the country by the little-known black squirrel.

Black squirrel in garden in Bedfordshire (Simon George on Flickr) ... and going after food for the birds

When Alison Thomas first saw a black squirrel dart in front of her car, she nearly swerved off the road in surprise. That was in July 2003, and as a biologist, she found this strange creature a beguiling research topic - not least to disprove the family joke that she'd imagined it.

"I decided to start my own investigations and discovered, to my great relief and to the chagrin of my family, that squirrels can indeed sometimes be black and that there is a rapidly expanding population of black squirrels in Cambridgeshire," says Dr Thomas, of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.

The black squirrel is of the same species as the grey bushy-tailed creatures familiar from park and woodland walks. Its dark coat is the result of a naturally occurring mutation of the gene that governs fur pigmentation.

Other than colour, black squirrels have the same size, behaviour and habitat as greys.

"It's the same specific mutation found in the black squirrels of North America. The chances of that same mutation occurring by chance in the UK, and separately in the United States, is tiny.

Red v grey (and black)

Red squirrel (photo by Mark Carline, from Autumnwatch Flickr group)
  • About 160,000 red squirrels in UK, compared to 2.5 million greys
  • Most of these greys live in England
  • Reds are two-thirds the size of greys or blacks
  • Because greys are bigger, they eat more food more quickly, leaving too little for reds
  • And greys carry a pox that's deadly to reds

"This shows that at some point, black squirrels were brought into this country from North America."

The first recorded sighting of a black squirrel was in 1912 on the outskirts of Letchworth. It's thought that, like grey squirrels, a handful of black-furred specimens were imported for a private zoo and then escaped or were released.

"People speculate that it was the Duke of Bedford who imported black squirrels, but I've been unable to confirm that - even with the help of the family's archivists," says Dr Thomas.

It took another 30 years before black squirrels were spotted on the south-west borders of Cambridgeshire.

Today they are found in a ribbon across Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. In some hot-spots, blacks now outnumber greys, making up an estimated three-quarters of the squirrel population in villages such as Girton in Cambridgeshire.

"They're not found anywhere else in the UK. But people have reported seeing black versions of red squirrels - a different species, remember - on the Isle of Skye," says Dr Thomas.

Amateur photographer Simon George, of Henlow in Bedfordshire, has been documenting the comings and goings of a black squirrel in his back garden for several years.

"We more or less adopted her, and called her Coffee. She would come if you called her and ate out of our hands; she loved Waitrose finest walnuts. She had a litter of six last summer and survived the snow of last winter, but we have not seen her, or any other squirrel, since March."

In his area, too, black squirrels have largely replaced greys - he speculates that this is because they're bigger.

But Dr Thomas says any differences in size or behaviour are probably down to age.

In praise of grey squirrels

Grey squirrel (photo by Richard Nuttall, from Autumnwatch Flickr group)

The great squirrel, I call it. Lovable, energetic little bounder that brightens up any walk in the woods or park. Not only agile and sweet, but industrious, planting acorns that grow into mighty oaks.

They didn't want to come here. They didn't swim the Atlantic. They were brought in, probably reluctantly, by British gentlemen who thought they'd look cute in their estate grounds, gardens and deer parks. Is it their fault the smaller reds took one look, turned tail, and fled somewhere safer?

Grey squirrels do not physically attack red squirrels. They don't even chase them. They might frighten them a bit, who knows.

"Blacks and greys are the same species. Any differences people notice are likely to be age-related."

The rise of the black is the biggest change in squirrel demographics since the native reds almost disappeared 50 years ago from large parts of England.

This is not because black squirrels compete with greys in the way that greys compete with reds (the larger greys eat more, and carry a pox that is deadly to reds), but because the gene for black fur is dominant, just like the gene for brown eyes is dominant over blue in humans.

"Two grey squirrels cannot produce black-furred offspring, just as blue-eyed parents cannot have a brown-eyed baby," says Dr Thomas. "You need to have a black-furred parent to produce black offspring."

As wildlife watchers gear up for the Wildlife Trusts' population count for Red Squirrel Week, or for the start of the BBC's Autumnwatch on Thursday, Dr Thomas has a fond hope.

"I'd like there to be a count of how many black squirrels there are now. We're so programmed to expect grey squirrels that it's a shock when you first see a black one - it's startling and interesting."

Below is a selection of your comments

I live on the edge of Hitchin, North Herts, and the black squirrel is quite common. In a couple of small wooded areas, the black variety outnumbers the grey. In Letchworth, three miles away, there used to be a pub called the Black Squirrel in the 1970s.

Nick Bowyer, Hitchin, Herts

Letchworth is the home of the black squirrel - they are the emblem of the world's first garden city. They've been in our gardens for many years, together with the greys, and the population does seem to be increasing.

Pat Baskerville, Letchworth Garden City, UK

Niagara Falls area: on the Canadian side the squirrels are black, on the US side they are grey. Weird, eh?

Max Patrick, Middlesbrough, UK

Grey squirrels get a lot of undeserved bad press so I'm pleased to read Bill Oddie's comments that they don't attack the reds (as many people seem to think they do). In the park in Chester the squirrels will run to you and eat out of your hand, sometimes climbing up your arm. Walk in to the Grosvenor Park with a bag of peanuts and you are almost mobbed.

Adrian Mugridge, Cheshire, UK

Here in the foothills of the Pyrenees we have quite a lot of melanistic "red" squirrels (the grey species is of course absent). People here think they are the result of a mutation and are successful because in the coniferous and mixed forest which covers the hills, they are less obvious to predators - there are all sorts of large birds of prey in the area. I often see the black ones in the garden with semi-red ones. The really bright red ones seem to live elsewhere.

Hazel Cumming, France

I have been watching them for the last six years in my garden where foxes, green woodpeckers and jays are also frequent visitors. I live 10 minutes' walk from the city centre, and my back garden is tiny, so I count myself very fortunate to have such a large variety of wildlife on my doorstep. If you take a walk along Bermuda Tce, you see several black squirrels feasting on food put out for the birds. They appear regularly in the Histon Rd graveyard, along with grey squirrels.

Fran Dawson, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

We saw a black squirrel at Pennal, Powys in Snowdonia in August. It rather took us by surprise. We were watching birds feeding from a feeder full of nuts on the patio of a holiday lodge when the squirrel strolled by.

Alison, Dartmoor

There are some white/albino squirrels resident in cities in North America, such as in Trinity-Bellwoods Park in Toronto, Canada. Have there been any sightings on this side of the Atlantic?

Kevin Ruairi, London, England

We've had two or three white squirrels, as well as grey ones, coming into our garden for a number of years now. They're the size as the grey squirrels, and share all the same traits, so maybe just a gene mutation, but intriguing to see anyway.

Scott Vance, Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland

I have seen a white (possibly albino) squirrel about three weeks ago at Horsted Keynes in Sussex near the Bluebell railway station. It took me by surprise but I was told that this was a common sighting around there.

Chris, Crawley, UK

Whilst playing golf at Surrey National I saw a white (possibly albino) squirrel chase a grey away from its tree.

Tony Woodward, Redhill, UK

I have often seen little black squirrels (some with white on their fronts) while on holiday in wooded areas in the south of the Czech Republic. However, during most of these sighting larger red squirrels are often close by acting like parents. I thought this could be because the little squirrels are born black but then go red as they get older. Can this be right?

Strelnikov, Oxford, England

Returning home from work through the Peak District two weeks ago viewed what looked like a black squirrel but completely dismissed it as never heard of one. Perhaps it was after all.

Stephen Denham, Chesterfield, Derbyshire

In Jersey we only have red squirrels - no greys at all, but many of the red squirrels re very dark, almost black. Is there a possibility that there is a natural colour mutation within isolated communities?

John Falle, Jersey, Channel Islands

We have seen and photographed a black squirrel in a wildlife park in Kent, roaming freely in the woods. The wildlife park breeds red squirrels for reintroduction to the wild, but these are caged and in a separate area.

Ernie Edwards, Dover, England

I'm concerned by the comment that two blue-eyed parents cannot have a brown-eyed child. It is possible for a parent of any eye colour to produce a child of different a colour even if the gene is thought to be weaker. Both my husband and I have blue eyes, we have two daughters - one with blue eyes, one with brown.

Elizabeth Dewbery, Norwich

A black squirrel darted in front of my car two weeks ago whilst driving through the Surrey Hills on my way to work. I had been questioning whether or not the creature was actually a squirrel... I now have proof. Thank you.

James Snider, Guildford, Surrey

James (and Bill Oddie) you could not be more wrong. Red squirrels (our only native squirrel species) LOVE deciduous woods, especially stands of beech and hazel. The only reason people think they prefer coniferous woodland is that this type of forest does not readily support grey squirrels (not enough nutrition in conifer seeds for greys, which are nearly twice as big as reds). Yes, the grey did out compete the red for food, but the reason that reds have died off in such numbers since the mid 40s, is because one of the last importations of grey squirrels (prior to 1937) carried the deadly squirrel pox virus from Wisconsin.

Carri Nicholson, Newcastle upon Tyne

On most mornings our back garden is a living carpet of squirrels, which bring us a great deal of enjoyment. Along with humans, beavers, bower birds (and some other species) they have the engineer gene and are gifted problem solvers. We have three who knock on the back door to extort more peanuts and these are the third generation we're aware of that have learned this skill. Herewith a Haiku in their honour: Happy squirrel eats / On squirrel-proof bird feeder / Didn't read label.

Bill Ross, Toronto, Canada

It's always bad grey squirrels v good red squirrels. In fact the two sorts have different habitats. Red squirrels need coniferous woodland, and the good old greys thrive more readily in deciduous habitats or cities - where we feed them, sometimes by accident ie: on our carefully planted bulbs. Red squirrels are simply a bit more choosey and need more specialised places to live. This accounts for the "fact" that greys seem to have pushed reds into a competition and won... As to black squirrels, they are familiar to any reader of the Fortean Times.

Mary Worrall, Birmingham

I love black squirrels - so striking. We have one in our garden regularly called Jacob. He and one of the greys chase each other around. I've no idea how you would go about trying to count them though.

Jeanette Fox, Hitchin, Hertfordshire

Here in suburban Virginia, outside Washington DC, we have grey squirrels galore. During the 1990s, black variants were very common, but then declined. We did not see any between about 2000 and 2007, when a few popped up again. I had always thought this was just natural variation, but it suggests selective breeding may be at work too. Perhaps squirrels have a personal "color" selection when breeding?

Malcolm Ross, expat Brit, Annandale, Virginia, US

The first and only time I have seen a black squirrel was in Toronto city centre in a small park. It took ages for me to catch on what the creature was. They were extremely tame and would charge over to you begging for food. Lovely creatures.

Lee, Stockton

While we may enjoy seeing grey or black squirrels in our gardens, local people who own forests or even small stands of trees are not at all happy with them. These squirrels spend a great deal of time stripping new growth and therefore damaging trees, often killing them. In America squirrels do not do this type damage to trees and so far no one has come up with a reason for such destructive behaviour in East Sussex. The strips are not used for nest building and are often simply left hanging in the tops of trees.

M Murphy, Hailsham, UK

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