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Columns

Reflections: Decades on, the squirrels are still winning the walnut war

English walnut trees are SO civilized. Like proper English people, they are relatively neat and extremely well mannered.

For instance, English walnuts do not fall off the tree willy-nilly, but wait until they are completely ripe. At that point, the walnut shuck gently opens and, while still attached to the tree, drops a smooth-shelled walnut to the ground. All the walnut harvester has to do is pick up the nuts each morning.

And in the fall, when leaves on other trees are falling off in untidy fits and starts, the leaves of the English walnut hang in with upper lips stiffened, until the first hard frost, at which time they all fall off in a tidy pile under the tree.

But, as luck would have it, this civilized specimen of the plant world has truly barbaric natural enemies. These adversaries unmercifully claw and gnaw the poor English walnuts while still in the shucks, apparently unable to await the tree’s civilized habit of dropping ready-to-be-eaten nuts to the ground.

For four generations, my family has fought it out with these horrible antagonists, but at present the squirrels are definitely winning.

My father started fighting with the squirrels over the annual English walnut harvest each year. The War with the Squirrels was a lot like America’s involvement in Vietnam. It started out simply enough, went through several escalations of increasing violence, and finally ended in a shooting war.

My folks got their English walnut seedlings from a family friend. My father noticed the second year the English walnut tree bore nuts, the squirrels began to graze on them well before the nuts were ripe, scattering bits and pieces of green walnut shells all over the yard beneath the tree. He further noticed that the furry little thieves had to climb up the trunk of the tree to get to the nuts. As the opening act the War with the Squirrels, he decided to make the tree unclimbable.

Just prior to the war’s outbreak, our area had suffered a heavy windstorm that flattened several farm buildings. But out of adversity comes opportunity, and so, using some windblown pieces of metal roofing, my dad armor-plated the tree trunk by wrapping it with corrugated steel.

The first squirrel that tried to climb the tree after it had been armored was clearly perplexed. From his puzzled attitude, it was obvious that he knew he had climbed that tree just the day before and had had no trouble. Now, for some reason, the trunk had turned as hard as steel.

It took the squirrels about a half a day to realize that all they had to do was jump on the tree trunk above the armor, and they could stuff themselves again.

Armor plating having failed, my dad decided to escalate the war a notch, and engage in a bit of electronic warfare. He removed the armor, since it was doing no good anyway. Then, he borrowed an electric fencer from my brother-in-law the farmer.

For all you non-farmers out there, an electric fencer is a battery-powered outfit that sends pulses of electricity through thin fencing wire. Such a flimsy-looking electrified fence, often only two strands of thin wire, is sufficient to persuade 1,000-pound steers they ought to stay in the pasture.

My dad, a retired farmer wise in the ways of electric fences, decided a little surprise for the critters might pay big dividends. He installed fence insulators on tall steel posts driven in around the trunk and wound the electric fencing wire around the tree trunk in a spiral. Connecting the electric fencing unit, he turned it on, and retired into the garage to observe.

Shortly, the squirrels returned to see what the crazy human had done to their snack bar this time. Their greedy little eyes could apparently see the wire, but not being 1,000-pound steers, they had no idea what the significance was. To them, in fact, it looked like a handy climbing aid to the goodies they craved.

One of the more adventurous little rodents jumped toward the tree, figuring on using the wire as a handy ladder to the hors d’ oeuvres. He was unfortunate in touching one of the steel posts beside the tree at the same time he touched the electrified wire. The resulting shock caused him to jump about 3 feet straight up in the air.

After making a perfect four-point landing, he stared up at the tree in puzzlement. He had certainly never had that happen before. Tries by other squirrels that day resulted in the same result. It was, my father observed with a grim smile, a shocking experience for them.

It only took the squirrels a few days to figure out that they could get atop the garage, and jump from there to the walnut tree, once again out-flanking my dad.

Purely defensive measures having failed, the skirmish turned into a shooting war. From another relative, my dad borrowed an old long-barreled single-shot .22-caliber pistol. He bought a box of .22 birdshot down at the hardware store and would sit of an afternoon under the walnut tree, posting guard. When he would hear a squirrel (at the time, he was functionally blind from diabetes), he would aim the ancient pistol in its general direction and blast away.

Although he never killed a squirrel, he managed to give many of them a bad scare. And he was able to save at least some of that year’s walnut crop. After that year, though, it was clear that the squirrels had too many reinforcements, and the war was abandoned as essentially hopeless.

Although we have other nut trees in our yard, the squirrels still eat the English walnuts first. We haven’t gotten a single walnut from the tree since my dad’s War with the Squirrels in the late 1960s.

The other day, though, I heard about a fellow that has some corrugated steel roofing he wants to get rid of. I figure that if I could just cover the trunk a little higher…

• Visit historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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