Saturday 6 November 2010

Squirrels 2 - Charlotte 0

The last couple of months have seen me pitted against the nimble pawed wits of the Sciurus vulgaris, red squirrel. And I have to confess that I have more or less been beaten. Gathering hazelnuts is a race against these little darlings and then when it comes to beech nuts, I feel outdone by evolution really.

Between heavy showers this morning I managed to time a walk up the falls behind the house and started to have a look for beech nuts. This takes on the nature of a labour of love really – it took me an hour to gather just over an 1oz (or a good handful), so on a minimum wage this would make them about £84.34 a pound, or £179.70 a kilo. And that is with their shells on – take those off and we are talking caviar prices really!

As I was scraping through the leaf litter looking for the little darlings my mind mused a little. I looked up and caught the eye of a red squirrel in the tree above – not pleased to have competition however inept. Oh, to be able to train those nimble pawed creatures – rather than delve on the ground. A friend came across me gathering beech nuts one year – she was walking her dogs and saw in the distance what she described to be as a ‘scene straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel’. There was this crouched figure, muffled up in an old oversize coat, unrecognisable with thick hat and scarf, on their knees (unable to tell from the distance or even close up! if male or female) scratching around in the leaves. It is cold and damp picking those nuts even on a clear frosty November day. But actually pleasurable and very fascinating. The life under those leaves – small bugs, fungi, worms and then behold – a chestnut coloured nut. Is it empty or not? A quick squeeze between thumb and forefinger will tell.

Yes the squirrels are so much better adapted to this than I! But I have read that in famine years people would rely on beech nuts for food. They are delicious – but I wonder how energy effective it must have been to pick them – you have to pick a lot to make a meal. And timing is everything – so many factors to take into consideration – is it a year when the trees fruit? When will they ripen – when will they fall? I haven’t been able to work out how else to pick them other than from the ground – although I suppose you could put sheets on the ground beneath the trees and hope to catch them as they fall. But that would also make it easier for the squirrels!