Sandy’s Garden ... the White Nutcracker

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Although I am by no means a balletomane, I confess that I really enjoyed a recent performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ by Scottish Ballet.

The story is simple enough for me to understand … the toys come out after a family party on Christmas evening to dance before the enthralled daughter of the house; there is a fight between the house mice and the toy soldiers which the mice lose after the girl’s intervention; and the sugar plum fairy appears and arranges for a variety of dances to be performed for the girl’s enjoyment; the end. But the attractive set, the graceful dancers, the imaginative lighting and the truly gorgeous costumes all added up to a most enjoyable evening.

Very soon afterwards, I saw the most attractive nutcracker that I have ever seen, the furriest and cleanest white squirrel imaginable. Like the white rabbit’s first appearance in ‘Alice in Wonderland’, it ran across the garden and disappeared into bushes, out of sight almost as soon as I caught a glimpse of it. My first reaction was to wonder if I had imagined it, or if a grey squirrel’s fur had seemed to gleam white by some trick of the light: but a couple of days later it paused in full view, almost as if it were willing to let me admire it. And yes, it is a large, white, albino squirrel with a wonderful bushy tail to set off its thick fur coat.

Apparently, white squirrels are quite common in parts of the United States. Olney, Illinois, is known as the “White Squirrel Capital of the World,” and is home of the world’s largest known white squirrel colony. These squirrels have the right of way on all streets in the town, with a $500 fine for hitting one. The Olney Police Department even features the image of a white squirrel on its officers’ uniform patches. But Marionville, Missouri; Brevard, North Carolina; Exeter, Ontario; and Kenton, Tennessee all compete to be the official “Home of the White Squirrel”. But, I learn, most of these squirrels are properly termed ‘white squirrels’ for, although their fur is pure white, they have dark eyes and are not true albino squirrels, whose eyes are pink. The dark-eyed ‘white squirrel’ has a white coat due to leucism, which is caused by a recessive gene found within certain grey squirrels; and the vast majority of the white squirrels of North America are a genetic mutation of the common grey squirrel.

A true albino squirrel gets its white coat as a result of a genetic failing rather than a genetic change. This genetic failing is termed albinism and reveals itself in an almost complete lack of any colour in the creature, which has a white coat and pink or, occasionally, light blue eyes. True albino squirrels are very rare and are seldom seen, a rarity that is increased by the fact that they are thought to have poor eyesight and to be more vulnerable to any and all of the hazards of being a wild animal in a developed nation. And the local white squirrel is a true albino, for a friend caught a wonderful photograph of it in her garden and its pale pink eyes are clearly visible. Nor is it unique to east central Scotland at this time, for Edinburgh Zoo, the home of many exotic creatures from all over the world, is also home to what the zoo authorities call ‘a very unusual and elusive occupant’ – an albino squirrel.

It seems proper to clear up a common misunderstanding before I stand accused of inventing the whole story. Tree squirrels … the reds, greys and occasional albinos that we see in Scotland … do not actually hibernate. They do conserve energy by sleeping in their dreys for lengthy periods during the winter months: but they do emerge during milder spells to eat all they can find before disappearing again when the next cold spell comes along.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society