The quest to find the black squirrels of Cambridge

As soon as I heard that there were black squirrels in Cambridge, I knew that this was something I had to see. The only time I’d ever witnessed one before was in Belgium, of all places, and at the time I thought I was going mad. In fact, I’d spent hours convinced it was some sort of small, squat pine marten until I found out that black squirrels were a thing that actually exists. Then I started questioning all squirrels I saw, which I’d never really paid attention to before. Had grey squirrels, for example, suddenly started having white tummies, or had I only just started noticing them? Needless to say, I was eager to go through this harrowing and existential experience once again.

My informant told me that black squirrels can be spotted at two Cambridge colleges: Churchill and Girton. But how did they get there? Well, as a “melanistic” mutation of the Eastern Grey Squirrel, it made sense to assume that they can be found anywhere that grey squirrels exist.

Grey squirrels, as we all know, were brought over from the Americas as a fancy pet and proceeded to drive out our smaller, cuter reds. Given their reputation as invasive “tree rats” nowadays, it’s hard to believe quite what a highly-prized status symbol they were at first. One of the things that’s always driven it home for me is a fancy oil painting in Wolverhampton art gallery, displaying a family of Georgian nobility decked out in their finest attire. And right at the centre, there’s a grey squirrel on a silver chain:

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The Family of Sir Eldred Lancelot Lee, by Joseph Highmore, 1736 – can you spot the grey squirrel?

Little did we know that Cambridge’s squirrels would turn out to have a rather more intriguing past…

And so, on a sunny Saturday, me and my trusty Executive Squirrel Assistant set out to the first of the squirrel-heavy locations.

1. Churchill College

Named after the stalwart prime minister who shepherded the UK through the blitz, you would think the college would look a little less dystopian and futuristic…

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But it still had its fair share of nature and rustic features, so we kept a beady eye out for any shadows moving among the trees…

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We did hear a few skittering sounds and spotted a couple of grey tails whipping through the branches, but as we made our way past the oddly picturesque compost bins and out to the final line of trees at the end of the college, we still hadn’t seen any of the promised sable beauties. I was fine with this – I didn’t actually expect to spot any, and was just happy to have an excuse for a quest. But then we stumbled through the trees, we found ourselves somewhere entirely different…

2. The Astronomy Department

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Tall, ivy-clad domes loomed over us and we realised we had wandered in among the uncanny observatories of the Astronomy department. And here, there were far more grey squirrels, who were unnervingly tame. We even managed to photograph one…

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And where there are higher numbers of grey squirrels, there must surely be more chance of spotting a black one. Spurred on, we made our way through the towering pines and redwoods, but it wasn’t until we were finally attempting to stop trespassing and exit the site that I saw it – not one, but TWO beautiful black squirrels, streaking up the tree in front of us.

I was absolutely delighted! Especially since I’m NEVER the first to spot things – that’s why I’m not into birdwatching, despite writing for a bird charity. But this time, I’d done it! Sadly, they were too fast to photograph. My Executive Squirrel Assistant left a handful of presciently-purchased cashews on the edge of the table and we waited for a while, but they didn’t return.

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And so we set off towards our next destination, passing through one of the strangest places in Cambridge:

3. A brief detour to Eddington

This is one of the most sinister places I’ve ever been. It’s a brand new village on the outskirts of Cambridge, built specifically as overspill housing for academics. Much of it is still being built, creating a bizarre vista when you look out across cranes and skeleton apartments to the countryside beyond. Much of what has been built is still empty, and even for those poor souls who have already moved in, there must be something very odd about living in a village designed from scratch all in one go, rather than springing up organically over centuries. A strange shrimp kite – or was it a squid? Fluttered from a tree as we approached the village, and I attempted to appear three times in a panoramic vista.

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But soon enough, we shrugged off its sinister atmosphere and set off to our second destination:

4. Girton College

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This is like an adorable version of the Blair Witch Project

-Executive Squirrel Assistant

I really really love this college. It’s so harsh and Victorian! It’s just how I imagine the desolate boarding school in the middle of a moor that Eustace and Jill escaped from at the start of the Silver Chair. It’s also the closest anything has ever come to the building I dreamed about in my song “School for Lost Souls”.  And there are so many ravens! It’s just great.

After a brief detour to their orchards for some scrumping and a packed lunch of peanut butter and crisp sandwiches, we set off through its grounds, seeing nothing at first. But then, suddenly, while my Executive Squirrel Assistant was taking a photo of something completely different…

I mean, you still can’t see any of the squirrels – but at least you can see our reaction to them. And with the lens flare and the shaky camera, you certainly can’t say it isn’t atmospheric!

Oh, all right, fine. We did manage to get a sneaky photo of ONE:

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Can you see it?

And after that, we started seeing absolutely loads of them! About 20 or 30 at least, frolicking alongside their grey fellows. And that’s when we started noticing strange things about them. For example, they seemed bigger than their grey counterparts. Surely this couldn’t be possible if it was just a colour mutation? Maybe the fact that they were black just made them stand out more and their outline look bigger? Not only that, but they were different shades – some were solid black (reminding me of the Black Rabbit from Watership Down – maybe they were there to ferry the souls of the grey squirrels to the afterlife?) – but others seemed more of a brown-black – and I could have sworn one had a tan tummy. This required further exploration…

The true origin of Cambridge’s black squirrels

My research took me to places I never could have imagined. Firstly, I found that black squirrels aren’t just a rare mutation of grey ones – in fact, in some places they used to be the main colour morph. In the deep, dark forests of the Eastern United States, for example, their black fur used to give them an advantage over greys – but now, deforestation is overturning this trend. And not only does the mutation make them have a higher concentration of melanin pigment in their fur – it also makes them bigger, better at defending their territory and more attractive to females. No wonder it had spread so fast at Girton!

In fact, I found that at Girton, three quarters of the squirrels there are black! No wonder they were so easy to spot. I felt a little less proud of my observation skills, but no less intrigued. And then I found out something else – scientists had analysed the genes of Cambridge’s black squirrels, and found that they were actually more similar to modern squirrels living in America than they were to the ones in this country. So they aren’t actually mutant local squirrels. Instead, the story goes that, thanks to novelty of their monochrome fur, some black squirrels were captured from America and displayed a fancy menagerie at a posh manor house, from which they escaped.

And so history repeats itself once again…

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