This week’s word is squirrel. They have been on my mind this week as I beheld my tiny hazelnut harvest (pictured left) and muttered darkly about “bushy-tailed urban criminals”.
I grow fruit, vegetables and herbs for my family’s table. I planned my garden to be productive, including as many native plants as I could. This involved me planting a hazelnut tree in my front garden. I researched it in the hope I could get hazelnuts (my favourite nut) but the books all said to plant at least three together if you wanted nuts and I didn’t have the space, so I selected a contorted hazel with curled stems that looks great in winter and an unholy mess in the summer.
We wind lights around it at Christmas and during the unwinding process one January I was stunned to find a scattering of hazels on the (hazelnut coloured) gravel beneath. I shouldn’t have been shocked. As I explored the lanes around our village I noticed other bushes in gardens and the motorway embankment is planted with native trees, including hazels.
I came to depend on a small hazelnut harvest each Christmas, growing as the tree grew in size. Not this year. This year it has halved and many of the nuts show signs of attack by tiny claws. I’m blaming the squirrels. There’s a healthy population of red squirrels in old woodlands nearby and I’ve spotted one clinging to the wall of my neighbour’s house. I’m all for squirrels and I’m happy to support our native reds over invasive grey squirrels any day but do they have to eat my hazelnuts?
Squirrels have been with us for some time (about 36 million years according to the fossil record) and they get everywhere, not just at my hazel tree. The word entered the English language in the early 1300s. It came from the Anglo-French word esquirel. That came from the Old French word escurueil which was used for the beast or its fur (perhaps culled by angry nuttery owners). It came from scurius and sciurus in Vulgar Latin and Latin but it’s when we reach Greek that the fun starts.
The Latin words came from the Greek word skiouros which is formed from skia (shadow) and oura (tail or backside) with the idea being that the squirrel was a beast whose tail cast a shadow. I have a vision of ancient Greek squirrels using their tails to shade themselves from the relentless Greek sunshine, probably while nibbling on stolen hazelnuts.
Until next time remember to share the hazelnuts, the squirrels need them too,