Like many people in Britain, until last year I had only ever seen one of the two species of squirrel in this country. But, unlike most, I grew up knowing only red squirrels. North Cumbria is one of the few areas in Britain that have an established red squirrel population, along with Northumberland, Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, (close to where my husband grew up), Thetford chase in East Anglia, Hope Forest in Derbyshire, and Formby in Merseyside. There are also a few small isolated populations in other areas around the UK. Notably Brownsea Island (a small Island owned by the National Trust just off Poole Harbour in Dorset) and on the Isle of Wight .
The Red Squirrel has lived in Britain since end of the last
Ice Age (about 10,000 years ago).
It can easily be recognised by its size, colouring, and especially in winter, by its large ear tufts.
Colouring can vary from bright ginger, red and from a dull yellowy brown to dark brown, the fur can also be tinged with grey, The underside is white and in summer the tail can lighten to almost white.
Red Squirrels spend up to 70% of their time feeding in the canopy of trees, and are active mainly in the mornings and late afternoon and evening presumably to avoid predation by birds of prey.
spent much of my early years exploring the woodland around my home, on the
edge of the North Lakes, and those fleeting glimpses of red were a common,
but exciting sight. Two years ago, I moved into a village which had its own
'feeding station' for squirrels, situated on a small, quiet back lane. For
many years a local lady has been leaving food for them daily. The tamest of
these squirrels happily let you quietly watch and photograph them as they
eat, while others watch from the safety of high branches, only descending
to their special boxes when you are out of sight. Last year someone added
about 5 new boxes, attached to trees, along the length of the lane, this allows
more squirrels, from different territories to get the supplements left for
My first sighting of a grey squirrel was last April, in Cornwall, a fleeting glimpse high up in the branches of a tree. My second, in Peasholme park, Scarborough, was a rather fat looking specimen that leisurely walked across the path in front of me and my uncle as we walked - I have to say that neither encounter inspired me much!
In November I warmed to the greys, whilst drinking coffee in my uncles kitchen, near Scarborough, and I watched the antics of a pair that were stealing peanuts from the bird feeders, (the assorted birds were amazing too, all in a 3m x 5m backyard!).
The Grey Squirrel was first introduced to England at Henbury
park, Cheshire, in 1876, at Castle Forbes, County Longford in Ireland in 1911,
and in other areas around the UK in the 1920s.
From these sites the Grey squirrel population grew and spread over much of the country, and as it did, the red squirrel population began its decline. Grey squirrels are considered a threat to woodland because they strip bark from trees.
do not hibernate, both species live in 'dreys' or nests, made of twigs, lined
with soft hair moss, moss and dried grass. In cold periods in winter, squirrels
often stay in these drays for several days. Their main foods are tree seeds
(acorns, hazel nuts), tree flowers and shoots, mushrooms and fungi from under
tree bark. During the winter, they live on their hidden stores of nuts and
seeds. The greatest time of famine is July, before nuts and seeds ripen, and
their own stores are depleted.
Nut only diets can lead to brittle bones (due to calcium deficiency), so, if you do feed squirrels, a mix of peanuts, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, carrots, apples, maize,and even boiled bones is a good idea - our local feeding station sports a cuttle fish bone, which is a good idea, but I have never seen it being used!
In the last few months, I have read in our local paper, reports of grey squirrels at Alston, and the southern tip of Ullswater, so our Cumbrian population is seeing its territory invaded, year by year, just as the rest of the country has over the last century. Does this mean that in twenty years time that 'our' red squirrels will also be gone?
I for one will miss that flash of red.
For a long time it was assumed that the Grey squirrel was
simply out-competing the Red but in 1980 it was discovered that the Greys
in East Anglia were carrying squirrel-pox. Most Greys have immunity to this
disease and rarely die, but the Reds seem to have no defenses and usually
die within 4-15 days.
Since then the disease has spread to most of Red squirrel populations throughout the UK and is probably the major cause of their decline.
Recently (2008) a few Red squirrels have been found to have anti-bodies to fight the disease, so it may be possible develop a vaccine, but this is not likely to happen any-time soon if at all, as there is little or no commercial benefit to fund it.
The only advantages that the reds have is their supremacy in conifer forests and the special place they hold in our hearts.
The British red squirrel population is estimated at 160,000 75% of which are in Scotland.
The grey squirrel population is estimated at 3,300,000.
In England, Greys already outnumber Reds by more than 66:1.
|Red Squirrel||Grey Squirrel|
|Size||18-24cm + Tail 14-20cm||22 - 30cm + Tail 19-25cm|
|Habitat||Coniferous and some mixed wooldland, and larger stands of Conifers.
||Deciduous and mixed woodland,
parks, gardens, trees & hedgerows,
|Population Density.||0.1 to 1 per Hectare.
||Up to 15 per Hectare|
|Diet||Spruce and pine seeds, buds, shoots, flowers, berries, fungi, bark, sap
tissue and invertebrates.
Will also take eggs and fledglings.
|Tree shoots, flowers, fruits, nuts, roots and cereals and invertebrates.
Eggs and young birds.
Importantly they are able to digest Acorns, Red squirrels fed Acorns loose weight
|Reproduction|| January - March
Delayed till Summer if food is short
|Spring, late Summer or both|
|Gestation||36-42 days||42-45 days|
|Litter Size||1-8 kits (usually 3)||1-9 kits (usually 3)|
|Litters||1 per year||1 or 2 per year|
|Development||Weaned: 7 - 10 weeks
Independant in 10-16 weeks
Mature at 8-11 months
| Weaned at 10 Weeks
Independant in 16 weeks
Mature at 1 year
|Lifespan||Average : 2-3 years
Maximum : 7-10 years
|Average 2-4 years
Up to 9 years
|Conservation Status||Protected by Schedules 5 and 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Fully protected Appendix III of the Bern Convention, IUCN 2000 Red List:Least Concern
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