There’s a panther in the willow tree. At least, in the mind of a six year old me, holding the family cat against the wrinkled old bark and my imagination fired into the exotic. Willows will do that to you – maybe it is their limbs, waterfalls of grey-green leaves tumbling earthward like plaited hair, or their voices, crack of old bark and rustle in the wind.
Crack willow is abundant in wetter parts of Norfolk, and is rather more at home here than my old companion was in the dry chalky North Downs. It is a grey trim along the riverbanks like a furry coat lining, leaning towards the water, reflected back towards the sky.
Willows always retain one limb inside the human imagination. Perhaps JRR Tolkien saw a hollowed shell such as this before the hobbits had their misadventure with Old Man Willow?
And as for the Wind in the Willows – Ratty, my favourite character, is properly called a water vole, and he still stars in Norfolk’s waterworlds.
A rushed photo admittedly, but I was thrilled to glimpse it at all. These large aquatic rodents have had a catastrophic decline in the UK due to habitat loss and predation by introduced American mink. Bizarrely, a few days later I saw another mammal swimming up the river.
Yes, that is a grey squirrel, and it was swimming well enough and making for the bank. It probably fell out of a willow. Is it just my imagination that the tree could jettison a climber so easily?
Keep listening to willows. They must have many more stories.
The year has turned but earth and sky are divided by a cold curtain. On this morning when trees are only suggestions in the grey, I was guided to a fox by a magpie, cackling its annoyance in the great misty somewhere. Sure enough, after a little waiting, a familiar face appeared.
January is the breeding season for foxes, and also for a mammal that views them with great distrust. Grey squirrel: whistler above us, pausing in its clambering to breakfast on a nut.
They are not a British native, of course; as is well known, they were deliberately released on many occasions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their real home is eastern North America. They have not been good news for the red squirrel, which in south-eastern England is now restricted to a few islands off the south coast.
I saw this one on the Isle of Wight a while ago. It is a very different species to the red squirrel of North America.
Back to the greys. They are controversial and probably have had some impact on other species too, but realistically, it is the grey squirrel or no squirrel in much of England at present. And as wildlife ambassadors, they sit in a unique niche – especially when a ghost like this catches the eye.
We had thought our white squirrels lost. For decades, they have brightened our trees but many years passed without a sighting – and yet, here one is, on New Years Day 2021. The gene that causes albinism is recessive, meaning an animal can carry it while retaining normal pigment – it has to be present in both parents to create a white squirrel. Unlike many animals with albinism, they survive well in the wild.
I suppose in a way they have been here all the time, the gene passed quietly through generations without showing itself. Perhaps a small reminder that there can be more hope in life than that readily seen.