So when did you last see a red squirrel and where were you? Or perhaps you’ve never seen one. There are only about 140,000 red squirrels left in Great Britain compared to 2.5 million grey squirrels and because they are also very shy and timid, if you’ve seen a red squirrel lately, you’re very lucky!
The red squirrel is classified as Near Threatened in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but is more commonly found in Scotland. It is also a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan which aims to assist its recovery.
The reasons for the red squirrels decline are many and we can’t entirely blame the grey squirrel. The latter is not indigenous to Britain (whereas the red squirrel is) but with its introduction to this country back in the 1870s, the grey squirrel has thrived while the red has slowly and steadily fallen in numbers. The same is true in Italy where in 1948 just 2 pairs of grey squirrels escaped captivity and now the surrounding population of red squirrels is in dangerous decline. But Why?
|Image Credit: Miriadna|
Smaller than its grey cousin, the red squirrel is normally about 8 – 9 inches long and has a tail of about 6 – 8 inches. It has, as the name would suggest, a distinctive red coat and tufty ears which get even tuftier in the winter. It’s a species of tree squirrel and prefers to be up in the tree canopy but the red squirrel can also swim should it need to.
The red squirrel likes to live in a den or drey which it makes for itself out of bark, twigs, leaves and moss in the fork or branches of a tree but its life expectancy in the wild is just 3 years (as compared to 7 to 10 years in captivity). And with red squirrel kittens having a survival rate of between just 20 to 50%, it’s not easy for our dwindling red squirrel population to thrive.
|Image Credit: Wild-Scotland|
The highly adaptable and slightly more adventurous grey squirrel gets a lot of bad press about the red’s decline but it’s entirely their fault. A combination of complex factors have come together over the last 150 years to stack the odds against the smaller native red:
|Image Credit: Flickr|
There are lots of projects afoot across the UK aimed at supporting the recovery of the red squirrel. In 1998 a project was started on the Island of Anglesey to eradicate the grey squirrels and support the small but remaining population of reds. Combined with an introduction of more broadleaved woodland, Anglesey now has the largest population of red squirrels in Wales.
And Anglesey isn’t alone. Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour has a thriving population of red squirrels as does the Isle of Wight and you’ll find 85% of our red squirrel population in Scotland or the north of England.
The red squirrel is generally much more timid than the grey and they can be hard to spot. Lookout for tell tales signs such as large dreys in the trees, scratch marks on the bark or the remnants of pinecones which may look a bit like an apple core once the seeds have been stripped off. And if you are lucky enough to spot one, we’d love to hear about it at @LoveTheGarden or leave us a comment below.