The red squirrel is native to Britain, but its future is increasingly uncertain as the introduced American grey squirrel expands its range across the mainland. There are estimated to be only 140,000 red squirrels left in Britain, with over 2.5 million greys. The Forestry Commission is working with partners in projects across Britain to develop a long-term conservation strategy that deters greys and encourages reds.
Red squirrels build large nests, called dreys, often in the forks of tree trunks. They are usually solitary, only coming together to mate. But they do not mind social interactions and related squirrels will share dreys to keep warm during cold winter months. Reds range widely, especially when looking for mates.
Red squirrels produce young, called kittens in the spring and can reproduce a second time in the summer if conditions are right. Watch for courtship displays in the trees. Females usually have 2-3 kittens but litters can be of up to 6 young, born 45-48 days after mating. Females bring up the young and are territorial over their brood.
Between 20 and 50 per cent of kittens survive to adulthood. Young red squirrels are weaned off their mother’s milk after about 8 – 12 weeks, when they have developed a complete set of teeth.
Red squirrels are seed eaters. They favour pine cones, but also eat larch and spruce. Their diet also includes fungi, shoots and fruits of shrubs and trees, and sometimes birds’ eggs. They can choose between good and bad nuts by holding them in their paws. Reds do not hibernate and store fungi in trees to eat over the winter months. When food is plentiful, they put on weight in the autumn to help them through the winter. This is important for breeding females, so that they are in good condition for producing young.
The main threats to the survival of the reds are the increasing number of grey squirrels, disease (squirrel poxvirus) and road traffic. Greys can feed more efficiently in broadleaved woodlands and can survive at densities of up to 8 per hectare. The density of reds is up to 1 per hectare in broadleaved woodland but can be as low as 0.1 per hectare in coniferous woodland.
The main predators of red squirrels are birds of prey, such as goshawks and pine marten. In some urban areas, such as Jersey, domestic cats are also a threat when squirrels go into gardens to feed.
Red squirrels usually have russet red fur, although coat colour can vary with some reds appearing very grey (and some grey squirrels can have red fur down their backs and on their feet). They are small with ear tuffs – large tuffs in winter – while grey squirrels are stockier and rounder. There is little difference between males and females, which makes it difficult to distinguish between the sexes.
Red squirrels are very elusive and spend much of their time in the tree canopy. Telltale signs to look for include large dreys in trees, scratch marks on bark, and chewed pine cones that look like chewed apple cores. The ‘chuk chuk’ noise is a vocalisation used often not just when frightened and the foot tapping – perhaps better to say when agitated as they do it when angry or not happy – if they are frightened they’ve probably disappeared by then.