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The Black Squirrels of Girton

On Saturday I went out on my first ever solo geocaching expedition. Someone recently showed me how it was done, and I was quite enchanted with the whole idea of it. There’s a marriage of country walking, high tech gadgets, and inveterate pokey nosiness and persistence involved (okay, less a marriage and more a ménage à trois).

I am exactly the sort of woman that’s waited all my life to have a decent grown-up excuse to poke bits of grass and rabbit holes with a dirty stick I just picked up off the ground. Airily claiming that it’s all part of a GPS-centred game suits me just fine.

Anyway, it was a lovely little trip out, at least until the thorn bushes and the falling off fences commenced, and I would normally pass over the whole matter in silence except that I spotted one of the famous Black Squirrels of Girton and had my phone on me.


All right, you might have to squint a bit. Five minutes previously, this little guy had been prancing happily (and jet blackly) in the field nearby. But it’s a new phone and I haven’t quite worked out the camera, and by the time I did he declined further photo opportunities. Hence, half a squirrel.

What do you mean, a black squirrel?

Black squirrels are a well-known but rare phenomenon in the US and Canada. They exist wherever there is a population of grey squirrels as they are a melanistic mutation. Squirrels with one copy of the mutant gene are a dark brown-black. It takes two copies of the gene to produce that silky jet effect.

Black squirrels have been present in Britain since the grey squirrel was introduced in the 19th century. It’s thought that the British ones are descended from zoo escapees. Wikipedia asserts that up to three quarters of the squirrels in Girton in Cambridgeshire are black, but I must say that I’ve only seen a handful of black ones. The vast majority  of the floaty rats in the village seem to be grey.

I was in the Lakes recently and caught sight of a couple of red squirrels. They are the most striking thing in the flesh. They’re not a bit reddish, or red-brown, but instead the sort of brilliant dark ruby colour you’re always on at your hairdresser to recreate on your own head but she can never quite manage it. Just seeing them lifts your spirits.

The black ones are the same – this arresting colour in that most familar of woodland shapes. They remind me of the black squirrels that Tolkien mentions inhabiting Mirkwood in The Hobbit. The ones in the book, apparently, have a horrible taste when roasted. I would test this in my medieval cookery adventures, but considering that I wasn’t even fast enough to properly photograph one, I wouldn’t be holding my breath if I were you.


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