Squirrelling away to look at a rarely spotted rodent

Squirrelling away to look at a rarely spotted rodent
Looking from a train or carwindow in Czechia, it would seem that almost every meadow and forest in the Bohemian countryside has its own hunting tower. Picture: Damien Enright

The story this week begins with an unfortunate flat squirrel encountered on a road in the Czech Republic, awkwardly renamed Czechia, uncomfortably similar to that of war-torn Chechnya fighting for independence from Russia.

It was the dead of night and my son was driving us — my wife, myself, and his wife — back to my Czech-resident son’s summer home-from-home at his barn-cum-workshop deep in the countryside.

An object on the dark, forested road caught his eye and he stopped the car and reversed to see what roadkill it was this time. It turned out to be exotic and I regret not being able to show a photograph of it to my readers. A black squirrel is something one doesn’t see every day.

It lay splayed belly up — the belly was white, as is usual with squirrels — on the tarmacadam like Native Americans splay beaver skins on boards to dry.

A black squirrel, a curiosity, we thought, an example of melanism as in the occasional aberrant darkening to black of the otherwise normal colour of an animal’s skin or a bird’s feathers.

It, like albinism, when the fur or feathers are aberrantly white, is a phenomenon not extraordinarily rare.

However, in looking up data about the frequency of black squirrels in Czech, I learned some interesting facts.

It seems that black squirrels were predominant in the North American forests before Europeans arrived in the 16th century. In these dense primeval forests, dark coats better concealed them from predators, mainly owls and hawks.

However, as the forests were cleared by colonists, the black coats made them easy targets not only for their avian predators but for humans hunting them for their pelts or meat.

Less-dark individuals now had the advantage, and gradually black populations were replaced by grey.

Today, this black subgroup remains abundant in the still extant, old growth forests north of the grey squirrel range where the dimly-lit habitat makes them less visible when viewed from above. Dark-coated, they also have a higher tolerance to the cold.

We came upon the black roadkill animal when passing through dense forest, of which there are vast areas in Czech, 34.4%, of which 0.3% is primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form.

It has since occurred to me that perhaps the Czech traffic casualty was melanotic for the same reason as his American cousins.

With so much of the country swathed in trees, it’s no wonder the Czech make much use of their forests.

In summer, Prague’s weekend streets are often empty of locals when they leave for the country cottages owned and shared by the family. Blueberries are the quest. Forest floors are often carpeted ‘wall to wall’ in the low, green bushes. And there are chanterelle mushrooms, too.

Hunting is big in Czech culture and also big as a tourist attraction. Numerous internet websites offer deals to hunters from overseas.

For those whose sympathies are with the animals, it is, of course, a murderous trade. Visitors, after getting the ‘appropriate’ licences, can hunt — besides wild boar and mouflon sheep — four deer species, roe, red, sika and fallow.

The object is antler and boars’ head trophies, and gamey meat.

Hunting estates are stocked, and the hunting season strictly controlled. But this is hardly a reassurance for the creatures hunted.

The Czech Tourism website assures readers that in visiting the better hunting estates, more than 1,000 birds per day — largely pheasants — can be ‘bagged’ by a party of six to eight guns.

Farmers may hunt animals to control their numbers, and for meat. It would seem, looking from train or car window, that almost every meadow and forest in the Bohemian countryside has its own hunting tower, a wooden structure reached by a ladder of 12 or more steps.

It is true that deer and wild boar can devastate crops and must be controlled. But often, the deer spotted in a field at dusk is solitary, and one hopes that the fine creature does not have gun sights trained on it.

I note that, so far this year, on our buddleia bush and valerian flower heads Peacocks butterflies are the most prevalent species, with some Red Admirals.

No Painted Ladys, the legion arrival of which I noted in June. No local Small Tortoiseshells so far, and just a few Fritillaries.

Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts 1976, as amended, prohibits the cutting, grubbing, burning, or destruction of vegetation — with certain strict exemptions — from March 1 to August 31.

Lobbyists’ attempts to have roadside hedge cutting allowed during August have been rejected in favour of protecting nature and biodiversity, the Department of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht recently announced.

Harmless roadside hedges in my area of west Cork have been trimmed in the last week.

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