There’s a Squirrel in Our Midst

This summer we acquired a squirrel.

Not by choice, but likely drawn to our rewilded property. We’ve let the alder grow wild in the back-40, leaving a deliciously bushy forest that leads down to the marsh at the bottom of the property. We’ve added perennial gardens that bring bees and butterflies and hummingbirds, while the marsh hosts frogs and a vast variety of dragonflies. The number of birds we see has increased exponentially since we first moved in, nine years ago when the property was mostly baked dirt exposed to the sun. I especially enjoy the birds that come to the birdbath and swish themselves around a bit, then shake themselves off and fly up to a neighbouring tree. It feels good to have created habitat for them.

But back to the squirrel. We’ve seen one or two in the neighbourhood, but this was the first one we’d seen on our property. We thought it was a good sign, and cheered her on.

That was until she discovered our walnut tree.

My mother-in-law grew the tree from a seedling in her backyard, and gave it to us to populate our new gardens. We planted the seedling when it was just over a foot tall, a slender whip of a thing with a bud at the top. Eight years later it’s grown into a twenty-foot tree, bushed out and green in summer. This year we had walnuts for the first time, green pods all over the tree that hid a shell with a nutty treasure inside. We were looking forward to trying our first homegrown walnuts, especially since there were so many of them.

But it wasn’t to be.

A few days after the squirrel moved in, we noticed her carrying something green as she raced to the firepit ring and hopped onto the cedar trunk to scramble up the tree. Our walnuts! Within days the tree was bare of nuts, and there was nothing left for us.

A few weeks later I spied the squirrel sitting on the edge of the firepit ring. She was munching on something that looked suspiciously green. Once she’d scurried back up the cedar tree, I went out to see what she’d left behind. There was a tidy pile of the green outer bark of the walnut, neatly pared off with sharp teeth. And two halves of a walnut shell, picked clean inside. I carried the shell inside, a remnant of what we could have had if the squirrel hadn’t beaten us to it.

I should have known we’d have a pest in our midst, as my mom has a terrible time with squirrels. They dig up her garden, and take bites out of her squashes. They bury peanuts in the dirt and pull seedlings out of pots.

While we’ve made our property more attractive to animals, we can’t pick the animals we attract. Turns out this is likely the eastern grey squirrel, which is considered an invasive species in BC, not least because of its impact on Garry oak ecosystems.

Not only do we have a thieving squirrel, but we’ve had rats in the garden shed (note to self: do not leave bone meal in the shed over winter). We’ve seen a bear as it passed from our property to the neighbouring one, so they’re definitely in the neighbourhood. Of course there are always deer, sneaking into the orchard when we forget to close the front gate overnight and browsing on the lower branches. They also appear in our back 40, following the trails they’ve made between the houses in our neighbourhood. We found a set of antlers in that alder forest, fallen from a buck not that long ago. They sit out on the front porch, a reminder that we live with the wild, in the wild, no matter how coiffed our lawn or beautiful our perennial gardens (note: our lawn is far from coiffed, and in summer we let the grass grow long in the orchard to keep moisture in the soil for the trees. Also the perennial garden didn’t make it this summer with a lack of water, so it’s coming out next spring.).

It makes me think of The Mindful Carnivore, by Tovar Cerulli. He writes about how even vegetarianism has a negative impact on animal life, as ‘pests’ like groundhogs, deer, squirrels, birds, and other animals that might ‘steal’ a crop are killed or constantly scared off (think bird cannons in wineries and orchards). It’s a price we don’t realize we pay for our lettuce from California and our root vegetables from the Fraser Valley.

Even growing food at home has its drawbacks. Birds steal blueberries and strawberries. The neighbour’s cat uses my garden beds as a litter box year-round. Slugs eat tiny lettuce leaves. Wire worms burrow into our root vegetables. Even the maple roots come up in the bottom of our garden beds from the tree next to the garden itself.

Nature has its own way of being and growing, and it doesn’t always match with what we want or need. And sometimes there’s no way to work around these obstacles. We can try and get to the walnuts before the squirrel does. We can cover the blueberries with netting to keep the birds out, which has worked in the past. We can cover the beds with mesh to keep the cat away. But it makes it harder for our crops to grow. And there’s not much we can do about the wire worm or the maple roots. Maybe that’s why I gave up growing veggies this year and just focused on berries and fruit (we had a great raspberry, blackberry, and grape harvest this year, as well as pears and apples).

But I still miss some of my garden crops, like mesclun mix and real garden tomatoes. The tomatoes from the store are so bland. Maybe this year I’ll plant these two crops, which won’t be affected by wire worm, cats, birds, or squirrels (unless the squirrel decides to steal green tomatoes).

Overall, it’s gratifying to see our property come to life given how we’ve altered it, despite the squirrel’s shenanigans–and invasiveness. Sometimes we just have to take the negative with the positive. It’ll all even out in the end.

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