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Squirrel Appreciation Day is on 21st January, so, while the event is a celebration of squirrels around the world, what better time to look at our native red squirrel. These beautiful mammals were once common across the UK and Ireland. Now, a combination of habitat loss and the arrival of the grey squirrel from North America means that its range is much reduced. Where they do still live, there is often a hard-fought battle by conservationists to make sure their bigger American cousins are kept away. Read on to find out what makes red squirrels so special.
Red squirrels are a beautiful reddish-brown, even gingery colour with creamy white undersides. There is a surprising amount of variation between individuals, however. Colours range from dark brown and almost black through to grey or strawberry blonde. Location affects this to some extent, with different colour morphs in different parts of the squirrel’s Eurasian range. Red squirrels’ thicker winter coats also tend to be darker than their summer ones. Their ear tufts are more prominent in winter, too. Perhaps their most characteristic feature is the long, bushy tail. This is almost as long again as their body. It helps keep them warm in winter as well as balance while moving through the trees.
Red squirrels are rodents, just like rats and mice. This means they have a pair of incisors in both upper and lower jaws that keep growing throughout their lives. As true woodland dwellers, they spend much of their time in the trees, more so than grey squirrels. They are expert climbers, using double-jointed ankles and sharp claws to cling on to bark. They are also able to jump considerable distances both vertically and horizontally, as well as make mid-air decisions about where to land safely. Scientists studying their relative the fox squirrel have even likened some of the genus’ manoeuvres to parkour! This ability to think off their feet (ahem) not only helps them quickly assess whether a branch might take their weight or not, but also helps them avoid predators such as the pine marten.
Red squirrels are found more or less right the way across Eurasia from Ireland in the west to Korea and Siberia in the east. In Europe, they live as far south as the Iberian Peninsula. The types of woodland they use depends on the location. In Scandinavia and Russia, they prefer coniferous woods of spruce and pine. Elsewhere, they are more likely to use mixed or solely broad-leaved woodland. They build their nests, or dreys, fairly high up in the chosen tree and use twigs, moss and leaves in their construction. Dreys provide shelter and security at night and especially in the winter. Females also rear their kits inside. Males play no part in this process, leaving the female to it once mating has occurred.
Depending on habitat, red squirrels eat conifer seeds, a variety of nuts and berries and even fungi. Red squirrels are less omnivorous than greys, however. Grey squirrels are much more likely to eat bird eggs or chicks, along with tree bark, amphibians and insects. in the autumn, both red and grey squirrels cache extra food in a variety of locations ready for the winter. This practice is known as scatter-hoarding. To stop any watching rivals from stealing their food, they will sometimes pretend to hide food at decoy spots. They will then bury the real items elsewhere. However, research suggests that grey squirrels have better spatial memories than reds so are better able to remember where their winter caches are when it comes to retrieving food. Studies also show that greys are better at problem-solving than their smaller relatives. This partly explains how grey squirrels have managed to outcompete red squirrels.
Decline and Fall
Although common across Eurasia, the UK population has fallen from an estimated 3.5 million to between 140,000 and 160,000 over the last 150 years. There has been a huge range contraction since 1945 in particular. Red squirrels were once common across much of the country but today are largely restricted to Scotland where approximately 75% are found. The remainder can be found in the north of England, small pockets in Wales and on Brownsea Island and the Isle of Wight. Habitat loss and fragmentation is one of two major causes for this decline. The UK has some of the lowest forest levels in Europe. Clearance for agricultural use or construction projects such as roads and buildings, along with demand for timber during the two world wars, have been the main drivers of this loss. Historically, red squirrels were also persecuted as pests and trapped for their fur.
The other main factor in the red squirrel’s disappearance from much of its former range is of course the arrival of the non-native grey squirrel. This North American relative was introduced on multiple occasions between the 1870s and 1930s. They very quickly spread, outcompeting the native reds for food, although they don’t seem to directly attack red squirrels. This also occurred on the island of Ireland where red squirrels are now mostly found only in the west of the island. Perhaps the biggest impact is the introduction of the devastating squirrel pox virus into the red squirrel population by greys. Grey squirrels are carriers of this disease but are themselves largely immune. The same is not true of red squirrels, and the virus has been a major cause of declines where the two species come into contact.
A Glimmer of Hope
The news is not all bad, however. The UK Squirrel Accord (UKSA) partnership has been researching fertility control in relation to grey squirrels. If they are able to develop the hoped-for contraceptive, there could soon be a way of reducing the grey squirrel population humanely. At the moment, a number of projects carry out lethal control methods. While carried out in a humane manner, these still have ethical question marks over them. They are also time consuming and expensive. Some conservation projects have involved reintroductions or reinforcements, such as the successful bolstering of the Anglesey population by the Red Squirrels Trust Wales. Conservationists also carefully monitor existing island populations, such as those on the the Isle of Wight and Brownsea. The public are encouraged to report any grey squirrel sightings on the islands to ensure no stowaways manage to establish themselves.
Perhaps surprisingly, the recovery of pine marten populations both here in the UK (as well as in Ireland) is also cause for hope. Pine martens are expanding their range within their Scottish stronghold, as well as in northern England and Wales. Small pockets also exist in the New Forest and the Forest of Dean. Although pine martens do predate red squirrels, the two animals have evolved together for millennia. This means red squirrels have had longer to learn how to avoid pine martens than grey squirrels. In particular, reds have learnt how to read pine marten scents and then avoid an area, while greys haven’t. Hopefully, the more pine marten populations recover, the more red squirrels will benefit.
Inspiring everyone from Beatrix Potter, writer of the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, to road safety scheme the Tufty Club, red squirrels have a place in many people’s hearts. Persecution, habitat loss and the spread of grey squirrels, though, mean that they are one of our most threatened mammals. Thankfully, there are glimmers of hope for the species’ future. Here’s hoping that in the not-too-distant future, the tide will turn for this beautiful creature.
Polly Pullar has spent the last two decades encouraging wildlife onto her Perthshire farm. She also rehabilitates orphaned red squirrels. This lovely book gives a wonderful insight into her experiences with the animals as well as a history of our changing relationship with them, from historic persecution to woodland icon.
On the Trail of Red Squirrels, meanwhile, is a gorgeous pictorial study of this extremely photogenic creature. Will Nicholls’ beautiful photography is accompanied by some fascinating nuggets about the squirrels themselves as well as how he gets his wonderful pictures.
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