By Anne Clarke, Wharfedale Naturalists’ Society

GREY squirrels get a bad press. They are classed as a "non-native invasive species” and can damage woodland by stripping the bark from trees. They have contributed to the decline of our prettier native red squirrel by carrying a virus to which the reds are susceptible.

Their other bad boy credentials of destroying fledgling ground nesting birds has now largely been discredited by the experts. In North America they are considered essential for forest regeneration due to their habit of cacheing spare nuts.

When I mention the grey visitors to my garden, people frequently say “do you want to borrow my airgun/water pistol?” or dismiss them as “rats with fluffy tails”.

But I find the individual squirrels we have running about on our lawn attractive, agile, funny, ingenious and, yes, cute.

The danger in writing about grey squirrels is that it can quickly become political and I hesitate to reopen an angry emotional debate which has been rumbling on for 150 years.

They have been part of our British landscape now since they were first introduced in 1876 by Thomas Brocklehurst. It is true that, being stronger, bigger and more robust in their digestive abilities, this has affected the native red squirrels, but globally reds are not endangered and well into the 1930s were also regarded as pests only becoming iconised as the plucky underdog in the 1950s.

In St Andrews recently I saw three red squirrels and one grey co-existing on a garden feeder.

Their natural lifespan is brief enough without us killing them off - males only two to three years, females up to five years.

In our garden, apple cores held delicately in front paws are a favourite. With sunlight catching the gingery tint to the tail, or resting in the crook of a tree koala-like they provide easy opportunities for photographs and observation, and leaping from branch to branch across the trees or running along telegraph wires their athleticism is admirable.

Last winter one repeatedly visited an old sheep skull in the garden chewing on the horn until it has all gone. A calcium deficiency perhaps?

Another met our cat and quickly engaged in a cartoon like battle….a bundle of furs rolling over the lawn until they managed to disengage and leave uninjured.

A new book “Squirrel Nature” by Peter Coates echoes my feelings. To paraphrase - killing for conservation seems nutty and perhaps it’s time to celebrate and enjoy the grey squirrel as a British animal. Enjoy them as a part of our ecology, not an enemy.