When Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, celebrated his 70th birthday in November this year, he was feted and honored by the British press. While reporters were lionizing him, they should have been “squirreling” him or doing some kind of tributes that played up his passion for saving the red squirrels of his homeland and its surrounding environs.
Interestingly, more than 240 years after the English–American Colonies Revolutionary War, the United Kingdom is experiencing a battle between red squirrels (think of them as the Redcoats, the traditional British soldier) and their unruly, uncivilized North American cousins (the gray, or grey, squirrels). Yes, gray squirrels, native to the United States, were brought over to England and Scotland during the late 1800s. Wealthy estate owners wanted to have these frisky and cunning creatures running about their property, scaling their trees and cavorting freely.
However, the gray squirrels proved to be a natural enemy and threat to the more docile red squirrels, the rightful inhabitants of these lands. Gray squirrels carry a form of pox that they don’t succumb to, but is lethal to their red counterparts. In the past 120 years, the population of red squirrels in the UK has dropped from 5 million to 250,000. That is an enormous decimation, and Prince Charles wants to put a stop to the squirrel slaughter.
In addition to the American upstart squirrels spreading diseases that are fatal to the red squirrels, the gray squirrels are also able to find and hide berries more quickly than their Brit counterparts; the gray squirrels also are equipped to eat acorns before they have ripened. This ability to find acorns before the reds, and to devour them while the acorns are still green, gives the gray squirrels an evolutionary leg-up. Their digestive prowess spells an unhappy end to the more laid-back and proper red natives.
Prince Charles has gone on the record saying that he wants to tip the scales and restore the red squirrels to their onetime prominence in England, Scotland, and Wales. He has started a charitable trust to raise revenue and awareness about the red squirrel’s impending doom. Back in 2011, he spoke with the “London Telegraph” newspaper and voiced his anxieties over watching the red squirrel’s population dwindle and fade away: “My dream is that red squirrels might thrive in the UK once more, and that perhaps we can dare to think it might be a reality. In 2009, I said I thought the red squirrel could be our national mascot, so if we save this iconic species, there is a chance this might actually happen.”
Charles has also parlayed the popularity of his younger royals — let’s face it his sons, William and Harry, and their wives, Kate and Meghan, are bona fide superstars — as surrogates for his squirrel advocacy. For a recent issue of “Country Life” magazine, Prince Charles guest-edited the book and filled it with issues and concerns that were foremost on his mind. He sat down for a chat with Prince William and discussed his self-described “infatuation” with the red squirrels. Their father-son discussion was published in the magazine as a revelatory interview. In it, Prince Charles reveals that he is “wild about the red squirrels that visit” him on his Scottish estate. He has named the critters and even opens up the doors to his home so that they can enter and “run around a bit.”
There are often jokes made about rich eccentrics and how their quirks are tolerated because they have cash. Prince Charles reveals himself to be very tolerant of red squirrels scampering around his house at Birkhall, a 53,000-acre royal estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. “They come into the house at Birkhall and we get them chasing each other round and round inside. If I sit quietly, they will do so around me,” Prince Charles told William. “Sometimes, when I leave my jackets on a chair with nuts in the pockets, I see them with their tails sticking out as they hunt for nuts — they are incredibly special creatures.”
Since his own boyhood, Prince William has been an admirer of his father Charles’s commitment to the environment and stewardship of the earth. Prince Charles has always been a conservationist, and William has stated that he plans on passing this tradition onto his own children.
“His passion for the environment and the natural world is something I want to repeat in the way I raise George, Charlotte, and Louis,” William told the press after the release of the “Country Life” special issue. “His unwavering commitment to rural issues and the countryside has been a big inspiration to me and something I am keen to emulate and teach my children about.” To that end, William has loaned his name and his volunteerism to the United for Wildlife organization.
All of the royals are known for their charitable patronages, and for their affinity toward animals of all stripes. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, the wife of Charles, is a noted equestrienne, and she has recently embraced her role as the patron of the Medical Detection Dog charity. She has raised the profile of this canine medical program by hosting events, speaking about its purpose, and bringing her mother-in-law and über dog lover, Queen Elizabeth, to watch the dogs demonstrate how they are able to detect and respond to patient’s cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
Still, all of the goodwill that the royal family shows toward four-legged companions pales in comparison to Prince Charles’s red squirrel fondness. He is a tireless crusader for the Red Squirrels Northern England project and the Red Squirrel Survival Trust. He has told various news agencies: “My great ambition is to have one in the house, I hate to tell you. Sitting on the breakfast table and on my shoulder!”