Red Squirrels are the only Squirrel species native to the UK and there are currently an estimated 120k across our island, with 75% of the population in Scotland (as of 2012) They are mostly found in the Highlands, or Southern Scotland with small pockets in certain areas of England & Wales including Cumbria and Brownsea Island.
Reds can vary massively in colour ranging from the typical red with light blonde tails to almost black meaning it can be easy to mistake them for Greys however the tufty ears they can sport in Summer and much fluffier tail is a give away you’ve found them.
They’re much more selective in what they eat than Grey’s - which is one of the reasons they’re not as wide spread as their not so fussy counterparts. Typically they’ll eat the seeds of pine cones, hazelnuts, flower buds, and some funghi. They’ll test their selected nut by giving it a wee shake and listening for how fresh it sounds. If it’s mouldy - back it goes! It’s not worth wasting the energy.
You’re most likely to find them in Conifer forests, and broadleaved woodlands. Personally our favourite place is the stunning Caledonian Pine Forests of the Highlands. Generally you can hear their claws as they scrabble about the trees trying to get a closer look at you. We were lucky enough to have a pair running around our feet and scampering up the trees just behind our heads being especially nosey. My favourite encounter has to be in Centre Parcs (Whinfell Forest) when a boisterous wee one decided to take a running jump off a banister, via my husbands head. I wasn’t jealous at all….nope!
A lot of people don’t realise the Grey Squirrel is a non-native species and is one of the key threats to the Reds. Greys were introduced from America in the 1900’s. They’re much bigger than the Reds, can eat lesser quality foods but also breed more often, which all contributes to their success.
Unfortunately Grey Squirrels are carriers of the Squirrel Pox virus, which they are immune to but it is fatal to the Reds. If a Red catches it then they will succumb to the disease within 2 weeks.
Habitat loss is also a massive factor in the reduction in numbers across the UK. Territories can be split up by deforestation, development, and changes in land use. This doesn’t just affect Red Squirrels unfortunately but all wildlife in areas affected by any form of change to the landscape they live in.
Many Squirrels of both species are also affected by cars and a number of them are fatally injured in collisions. If you do have Reds in your area, you can get road signs warning other drivers they’re about and encourage them to take care.
Tentsmuir Forest in Tayside has successfully eradicated all Grey Squirrels meaning it’s prime territory to support the Reds population. Whilst you’re there it’s also worth noting the Forest is home to the White Tailed Sea Eagle.
Aberdeen has had recent sightings noted of Red Squirrels across a variety of locations - this all indicates that the Reds are returning to an area that was once a stronghold for the species. There are Grey Squirrels present, and they were introduced to Aberdeen but these were Canadian Squirrels who are fortunately not carriers of the Squirrel Pox Virus otherwise the situation may be completely different.
One other aspect of the Red Squirrel success that it’s good to know is how the increase in Pine Marten population has in turn helped raise the numbers of Reds where they share similar territories. There’s been great success in Ireland where they co-habit and many areas in Scotland are starting to see the same effect.
The elusive Pine Marten is a gorgeous animal that fortunately for the Reds does enjoy hunting the Grey Squirrels. That’s not to say they won’t take a Red if the opportunity presents itself but as Grey’s are heavier and tend to do more ground foraging, they’re easier to catch. The Grey’s voracious appetite also means they aren’t as agile in navigating the thinner branches of the trees, which give the Reds a great escape route.
What can you do?
There’s many ways you can help but the easiest and first step you can take is to log your Squirrel sightings - Grey or Red, dead or alive. This allows Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels to track both populations, the movements they’re making, and if there’s any concern about Grey’s encroaching in to the wrong territory. You can log these sightings here: https://scottishsquirrels.org.uk/squirrel-sightings/
For more information about Red Squirrels and the Project being run to help the Reds please click on the logo to the left.
Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is a partnership project that is working to ensure red squirrels continue to be a part of Scotland’s special native wildlife.
Clare also volunteers with them so if you would like any more information please email us, or contact Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels.