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Mar 05

The FT Top 25 Animals – 25. Red Squirrels

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Top? What does that mean? Cutest? Best in a fight? Most legs? Apparently our scientific method needs nothing as impecunious as a yardstick – these animals are top. That’s all you need to know.

Perhaps the absence of criteria hides a mess of too many, including some that might be difficult to admit to. Do you dare wonder why you champion the cuddly or the behemothic? What really appeals about the doe eyes or snarling tooth? Something to bear in mind as our menagerie debuts with one of the most popularly anthropomorphised animals ever, the Red Squirrel.

For all Beatrix Potter’s branding and their amazing nut retrieval tricks, Red Squirrels are best known for the story of their decline. Once common in British suburbia, and famous for their thrifty ways, for decades they have been fighting for their food source against the larger, allegedly more aggressive Grey Squirrel. Somehow, in the assembled imagination, Red hoarding gave way to Grey plunder, and the Reds’ population suffered. In this pseudo-fable of gatherers and thieves, the Red Squirrels are the heroes, and their tragedy is that they have all but lost.

But the recollection of them is pervasive – plenty have tales of the their abundance, or a special meeting with one, usually years ago, perhaps with thoughts of better afternoons gone by.

Conversationally, their rareness has turned into disappearance, their memory a myth of suburban parks. There still are plenty throughout Britain, although mainly in the northeast and Scotland, and if the forests are managed well then apparently the Greys may not crowd them out. But that’s too late – their place is already set. They are the underdog, the elegant and noble threatened by the thuggish masses. Red squirrels are edging towards folklore, inhabiting a half remembered past, when the woodland creatures were brighter, and the morality was clear too.

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