“This is a tale about a tail,” are the opening words of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.
As a consequence of the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit when that book was first published in 1902, Potter’s publisher … Norman Warne … encouraged her to continue working on a children’s book about a squirrel; and she was busy with this … and at least one other literary work … in December 1902, which makes Squirrel Nutkin 115 years old, a fair old age for a squirrel. This woodland tale was published in August 1903 and was an immediate hit, with a reprint in the shops before the year was out.
The mischievous but lovable Nutkin was a red squirrel, a species with which Potter was familiar in the countryside around her home in the Lake District in the north-west of England. The population of red squirrels, which are native to the United Kingdom, has been in decline for many years now as their larger and more aggressive American cousins, the grey squirrels, out-compete the reds for food and are ousting them from many once-familiar habitats, including Lakeland. And the mischievous squirrels which are to be found in and around Polmont are, almost inevitably, greys. Well, I write ‘mischievous’: but such is my liking for these garden marauders that I prefer to refer to them by the more emotive name of ‘tree-rats’, finding it much easier to wish that the tree-rats would leave my neck of the woods than I would to hope never to see another squirrel, a name to which my generation will automatically add ‘nutkin’.
At this time of the year, a few mild days tend to bring the tree-rats out of hibernation to forage for food, both to be eaten on the spot and to be stored for future consumption. And this foraging has, in the past, resulted in my pots of carefully planted bulbs being the subject of determined earth-moving as the often-still-dormant bulbs are found and stolen, with the tree-rats showing an unerring ability to select expensive species tulips before they dig up cheaper, bulk-bought, bulbs. In more recent years, the tree-rats have actually quite literally dug up bulbs which they chose neither to eat nor to move into store, being content to howk them out of their pots and distribute them randomly around my garden. Grrr!
Then, in October, a matter of days after I had yet again demonstrated the triumph of hope over experience by filling innumerable pots with bulbs, I listened intently as Lindsey Morrison from Inwood Gardens at Carberry explained to her audience at a meeting of Polmont Horticultural Society how she protects her bulbs from such depredations by inverting wire hanging basket frames over the pots. Eureka! A rummage among the summer garden equipment placed in store for the winter months produced a number of frames; a tour of the garden with tape measure and notepad revealed the numbers and sizes of new frames needed to protect the remaining pots; and several hours spent scouring the internet for cheap wire hanging basket frames … sorry, ‘inexpensive’ wire hanging basket frames, for nothing seems to be cheap nowadays … uncovered nearly-affordable sources of these items.
Will Lindsey’s East Lothian strategy succeed in Stirlingshire? Well, the signs are very encouraging. Since I fitted wire helmets over the pots, there have been no successful tree-rat raids although there were a couple of incursions in the few days between my being introduced to Lindsey’s scheme and my introducing it into my garden. So, while I wish you, gentle reader, a very Merry Christmas, I sincerely hope that I have ensured that I have not given any presents to the tree-rats!