On my current trip to Spain I happened to meet two red squirrels. The first I came across on the French side of the Pyrenees. I was walking alone in the beautiful countryside around Arro and the day was sunny and hot. Just to my left came a rustling sound from the hedgerow followed by some high pitched chattering. Suddenly a little red squirrel leapt put of the hedge onto the trunk of a tall pine tree just beyond it. It looked me in the eye and chattered crossly. I responded in kind as best I could. It climbed higher our interchange took place once more. This was repeated a number of times until, with a last burst of sound, my squirrel leapt into a neighbouring pine and was gone.
I continued on my way thinking over what we might have said to each other. First of all the little creature was clearly cross and said something along the lines of:
“What the hell are you doing out here disturbing my midday snooze?”
I simply pointed out that I was an Englishman on my way to Spain and had every right to walk through the French countryside.
“English,” he screeched angrily, “it’s you lot that let those grey tree rats in and now we hear that there isn’t a red squirrel to be found in the whole of your land.”
“You mean the grey squirrels?”
“Rats, tree rats. That’s what I mean.”
“But they are squirrels too.”
“Rubbish. Just look at them man. They’re grey not red. Look at their manky tails and the way they move. Why they can’t even speak properly.”
“Have you ever seen one here?”
“Not likely. But there’s some in the north. Coming over here eating our nuts, taking over our nests. The northern reds have tried setting up a no-go area around the coast, completely stripping the trees of nuts and blocking up all the nests. But it’s no good, they always get through. Some softie from your lot takes pity on a starving family of them and, instead of leaving them to die, feeds them up and takes them inland to where there are plenty of nuts and there you go.”
“But why can’t you live together.”
“Ha, that’s what they, with their big flat faces and rounded ears, say: ‘Oh please let me share your tree Mr Red Squirrel; there are plenty of acorns for all so why don’t we share them’. Then they get to work eating our nuts and breeding like rabbits until there are so many of them that they turn to us and cry, ‘This is our tree now. Push off red squirrel, there’s not enough food for you as well’. Yes, we red squirrels are doomed, all doomed.”
And with that he leapt into the next tree and was gone.
The second squirrel I encountered was Spanish. He looked similar to the first one but was a shade browner and a little smaller. I had just walked along the lip of the deep canyon which the Rio Jucar cuts through the generally flat terrain of Castilla La Mancha. I had then climbed down into the gorge to the little village of Tolosa and began walking alongside the river to my motor caravan parked beneath the famous cave town of Alcala. In a close repeat of the first encounter a Spanish squirrel rushed up the bole of a pine tree to my right. Surprisingly, given this squirrel’s nationality, this little chap was more reticent than the first and it was I that started the chattering. Nonetheless, once started he readily joined in before ultimately vanishing into the upper branches. This is what I imagined we said to each other:
“Hello Seňor Red Squirrel,” I said in a friendly way. “I met one of your cousins from France recently and we talked about the problem of the grey squirrels taking over your lands.”
“I am honoured to meet you Seňor,” he said shyly, his head partly obscured by the trunk of the tree. “However, I know nothing of grey squirrels and French squirrels. All squirrels are brothers and sisters and all are equal.”
“But surely you have heard that grey squirrels from another land have entered mine and taken all the food and nests of our own red squirrels, driving away all of your brothers in England?”
“All squirrels are brothers,” chattered the little brown squirrel after moving a little further up the tree.
“Are there any grey squirrels in Spain?”
He twitched his curved tail nervously and replied, “I do not know Seňor. We live only in the valley of the Great River. My father’s father claimed that he found a grey brother by the riverside. The grey brother, sadly, was dead.”
“Perhaps it died trying to get into your valley. Life for squirrels is, I should think, pretty good here.”
He did not respond to this so I continued, “What if the grey squirrels did enter your valley?”
“We would welcome them, all squirrels are brothers.”
“Would you feed them, would you house them?”
“What if they came in great numbers and took all of your nuts and your nests so that there was nothing for the red squirrels to eat and nowhere to live?”
The Spanish squirrel’s tail froze and he sat motionless on his high branch for some minutes before shrieking, “All squirrels are brothers,” then he vanished into the surrounding trees.
I continued walking through that picturesque ravine until I reached the town of Alcala. I then looked up at the morass of white houses clinging to the steep cliff side. We had visited this strangely attractive place the evening before and estimated that only a fraction of the houses were permanently occupied, so, plenty of nests there. We had also spent some time in a bar most of which was cut into the cliff face, so, plenty of room for expansion. The landlord, a confident, expansive fellow, had explained the current political situation to us as we watched Rahoy making his bid to continue as Prime Minister on the TV. He, the landlord, gave us nuts to chew while we drank our beer and I thought, “What if...?”