Or not? Mostly, not.
This past weekend, I read the fourth or fifth Regency novel in the last few years in which a scratching or rustling noise intrudes upon a clandestine meeting or stealthy activity in which the hero and heroine are engaged. The sounds come from the ground, in the dark of night, and in each case this disturbance is ascribed to squirrels. Impossible!
The facts about squirrels in Regency England …
The first important fact about English squirrels during the Regency is that none of them were grey, except in the winter. Although the grey squirrel can be found throughout the British Isles today, they are not indigenous to Britain. Natives of North America, grey squirrels were actually brought into England by some novelty-seeking Victorians. It is generally believed that the first grey squirrels were introduced at Henbury Park in Cheshire, in 1876. Grey squirrels were later introduced into Ireland at Castle Forbes in County Longford in 1911.
The grey squirrel is one of the most opportunistic, adaptable and prolific of all the squirrel species. They quickly escaped the confines of the estates upon which they had been released, for novelty and decorative purposes, and spread across both Britain and Ireland, displacing the native squirrels. Grey squirrels are larger and hardier than indigenous British squirrels, and they spend as much as 80% of their time foraging for food on the floor of the woodlands they inhabit. But there was not a single grey squirrel to be found anywhere in the British Isles during the Regency.
The only squirrels which were actually to be found in Britain during the Regency were the indigenous red squirrels. Red squirrels have inhabited the British Isles for at least 10,000 years, from the end of the last Ice Age. They are smaller and lighter than grey squirrels, but have distinctive large ear tufts. Like the grey squirrel, they have white fur on their underbelly, but their upper coat can range in color from a deep red through a bright ginger to a yellowish or even a dark brown. In winter, their coats thicken and can be shaded with grey.
Though both red and grey squirrels are tree squirrels, and will only live in areas with a thick canopy of trees, the red squirrel is the much more arboreal of the two. Where the grey squirrel might spend as much as 80% of its time foraging on the forest floor, the red squirrel spends less than 30% of their time on the ground. Red squirrels spend at least 70% of their time feeding in the canopy of the trees of their habitat, probably because it provides them cover from birds of prey.
Red squirrels, like grey squirrels, are diurnal, that is, they are active during daylight hours, and sleep when the sun is down. Both species make their homes high in the trees, building nests for themselves from twigs and leaves lined with grass or moss, called dreys. They will also happily move into the hollow of a tree to make their winter nests. In summer, they typically build multiple dreys made mostly of leaves which provide cool, airy shelter at the end of a warm day. Squirrels head for their dreys as the sun sets, and do not leave them again until sunrise.
There is only one type of tree squirrel which is nocturnal, that is, active at night and sleeping during daylight hours. Those nocturnal squirrels are the flying squirrels, which forage and feed at night to avoid predators. They spend almost 90% of their time in the trees, seldom coming to the ground. Flying squirrels are also not indigenous to the British Isles.
To the best of my knowledge, the only flying squirrel in England during the Regency was the one in the painting The Boy with the Flying Squirrel, by John Singleton Copley. It was a portrait of his young half-brother, Henry Pelham, painted in Boston in 1765. Copley painted the portrait to demonstrate his skill with color and his ability to accurately convey the many different textures of the items in the painting. He then submitted his finished portrait to the British Royal Academy of Arts the following year. It was well-recieved, garnering him election into the Academy. The popularity of The Boy with the Flying Squirrel in England also paved Copley’s way into the London art community when he left Boston for good on the eve of the American Revolution in 1774. Copley retained the portrait in his possesion until his death in London in September of 1815, at which time it became the property of his son, Lord Lyndhurst. It descended in Copley’s family until his great-granddaughter donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1978.
The only squirrels living in the British Isles during the Regency were red squirrels. They lived only in heavily forested areas, they spent more than two-thirds of their time high in the branches of their woodland habitat, and they were diurnal, active only during the daylight hours. There were no mutant nocturnal, ground-foraging red squirrels roaming England during the Regency. The only mutations in these squirrels were the variations in the color of their fur. The habitat and behavior of red squirrels during the Regency was just the same before Prinny took his oath of office as it was after, the same as it is today.
Despite the fact that grey squirrels are so widespread across Britain today that many people assume them to be an indigenous species, there were no grey squirrels in Britain during the Regency. And even if there had been, though they spend more time on the ground than the reds, they are also diurnal. It is most unlikely there were any flying squirrels in Britain during the Regency, with the exception of the one in Copley’s painting. There is always the chance that there might have been a very few of these nocturnal squirrels in zoological collections, but they would have been rare indeed and most certainly would not have been roaming wild.
So, dear Regency authors, if you need some small woodland creature to make a sound in the dark, thus startling your heroine into the strong arms of the hero, do not choose a squirrel. Regency squirrels would all be tucked up snug in their dreys at night and unavailable for the task. However, there are a number of nocturnal wild creatures which could serve the purpose, including foxes, dormice, hedgehogs, shrews, stoats, weasels, polecats, and badgers. These are all indigenous British species, and would have been living in Britain during the Regency. Depending on the setting of your story, with a little research, you should be able to identify at least one of them which will be appropriate to that habitat and thus available to make the necessary noise in the dark to suit your tale. Just don’t ask the squirrels, they’ll be sleeping.