The red squirrel is one of Britain’s most iconic and beloved mammals. Once the most common squirrel in the UK, they are now under threat, primarily due to the introduction of the non-native invasive grey squirrel from North America.
The Red Squirrel South West project is committed to the restoration and protection of red squirrels in the South West of England.
The Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is the UK’s only native squirrel and has become one of the most beloved mascots of British wildlife. They are naturally found across most of Europe and part of Asia, but are unfortunately now under threat in the UK, Ireland and Italy. Habitat loss poses a threat towards the species as a whole but the introduction of the Eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) from North America to the UK and Ireland has shown to have the largest impact on the red population. The estimated population in Great Britain is down to an estimated 120,000 for reds compared to an estimated 3,000,000 for greys and reds now risk extinction. As a result of this red squirrels are classed as a priority species in the UK and are protected under law.
Red squirrels are tree squirrels, preferring to spend the majority of their time in the canopy, and are found in mixed broad-leaf and coniferous woodlands. They have a varied diet which includes seeds, nuts, buds, flowers, fruit and even occasionally insects and eggs! Although they do not hibernate, they have been known to store – or cache – more food ready for the winter and periods where food is harder to get. They will also spend more time in their nests, known as dreys, when the weather is more difficult.
Famous for their ‘tufty’ ears, their coats actually change throughout the year. Colourings can differ from a bright ginger in the summer to a dark brown in the winter, with some even dropping their ear tufts when changing to their summer coat.
Reds live to around 5-6 years in the wild and sometimes longer in captivity. Reds can start reproducing after the first year with the breeding season being between March-July. Successful individuals can have 2 litters a year, averaging 2-3 babies, known as kittens, but some having as many as 6 in a litter!
Since 1870, when the grey squirrel was introduced to Britain from North America, the red squirrel population has dropped from an estimated 3.5 million to around 120,000.
Greys are a threat to reds for a number of reasons.
- Grey squirrels carry the squirrelpox virus, to which they themselves are immune, but is fatal to reds.
- Greys are able to digest unripe foods such as acorns, something that reds are unable to do. This means that food sources are taken by the greys before they are able to be reached by the reds.
- When put under pressure, such as loss of territory and food sources, red squirrels do not breed.
Red squirrels have also suffered from habitat loss. Areas in which woodland has been destroyed or split due to development has taken away the red squirrel’s natural home. This leads to less opportunities to nest and forage, making it harder for reds to thrive in the wild. Combining this issue with the natural competition from greys and the squirrelpox virus, it is extremely difficult to sustain viable red squirrel populations in large areas of the UK and Ireland without intervention.
Grey Squirrels IN OUR WOODLANDS
Grey squirrels are not just a threat to reds, they also raid bird nests, taking eggs and nestlings. Research has suggested that the greys have played a major role in an 85% decline of spotted flycatchers in the last 50 years and 57% decline of wood warblers in the last 23 years.
Greys cause considerable damage to broadleaf woods by bark stripping, this action kills or deforms the tree and leads to the destruction of woodland and a loss of timber value. The European Squirrel Initiative has shown that greys cost the forestry industry in excess of £40 million per year through tree damage.
Latest figures show a hectare of undamaged 150-year-old oak is currently estimated to value at around £54,370/ha, compared with a hectare of grey squirrel damaged 150-year-old oak valued at £7140/ha where squirrels have not been controlled – a difference of £47,230!
Greys are especially concerning to The National Forest due to their specific targeting of Oak – the tree that makes up a large proportion of our woodlands. They will also target; Beech, Field Maple, Hornbeam, Silver Birch, Sweet Chestnut, Sycamore and Willow, amongst others!
UK Squirrel Accord has produced an educational video regarding the issues and solutions of bark stripping. This can be viewed here.
There are an estimated 3 million grey squirrels throughout the UK.
Many individuals and voluntary organisations already control greys in the South West area. Through monitoring populations and targeted control, we can help restore our biodiversity.
By creating a network of likeminded people controlling grey numbers we will be able to restore our woodlands and provide a safe environment to reintroduce the red squirrel in the South West.
Can greys and red squirrels live in the same area?
Unfortunately greys and reds are unable to co-exist due to the squirrelpox virus (SQPV).
Reds and greys do not have to come into direct contact for the virus to spread, red squirrels can contract SQPV through sharing feeders or woodlands that are also used by greys. Grey squirrels also outcompete reds for territory and food making it difficult for reds to survive in grey inhabitated areas.
Are there any other non-lethal methods to control the grey squirrels?
Currently there is a 5-year project being carried out by UK Squirrel Accord looking into fertility treatment for grey squirrels. While this research is ongoing, previous studies have shown that oral contraceptives have been successful with rats.
More information can be found on the UK Squirrel Accord website.
Do pine martens help control grey squirrel populations?
There is some research from areas such as Ireland and Scotland showing that grey squirrel populations have declined as a result of pine marten reintroductions which provides some hope for red squirrel numbers in these areas.
However, like with all research, this investigation is still ongoing but we are hopeful for some positive news that can help aid the red squirrels!
I think I saw a red squirrel in my garden what should I do?
If you think you have had a red squirrel sighting then try and snap a photo and send it to us at email@example.com. It is important that anyone that thinks they may have seen a red squirrel reports their sighting.
It is worth remembering that there are currently no established wild populations of red squirrels on the mainland in the South West. Squirrels also change their coats throughout the year, with grey squirrels sometimes sporting ginger patches and red squirrels going darker, even looking grey.
However, if you are unsure on which squirrel you saw then please send us the details of your sighting!
WE ARE ALWAYS ON THE LOOK OUT FOR DEDICATED VOLUNTEERS. IF YOU FEEL YOU CAN HELP PLEASE CONTACT US.