Red squirrels, protected by the Countryside Act
Red squirrels are our native species of squirrel. They arrived in England approximately 10,000 years ago after the last ice age and it is thought there were 3.5 million living here at one time. Numbers have declined and it is estimated only 120,000 remain, with only 15,000 of those living in England.
Due to the severe decline in numbers red squirrels are now a protected species and the importance for its conservation is recognised by the Government.
There are two species of squirrel resident in the UK. Grey squirrels, introduced by the Victorians in the 19th Century have outcompeted and displaced red squirrels in many parts of the country.
Red or grey?
- Native species.
- Estimated population 120,000 – 140,000 in the UK.
- Smaller than the greys, (19-23 cm head and body length, weighing 270g – 360g).
- Red coloured coat.
- Ear tufts which moult out in late summer and regrow in autumn.
- Tail all one red colour.
- Considered an invasive species in the UK
- Estimated population 2.5 million ( may be an under estimation).
- Much larger than reds, (25 -30 cm head and body length, weighing 400-720g).
- Greyer colouration though this may vary and can appear reddish.
- NO ear tufts at any time of year.
- Tail is banded with different colours. Always has white tips to the hair creating a halo effect.
Why have grey squirrels such an advantage over the red?
Grey squirrels are larger, stronger and faster than red squirrels. They are able to live at higher densities and can out compete the reds for food;
Red squirrels find unripe acorns unpalatable and difficult to digest because they contain a chemical called tannin. Grey squirrels will quite happily take these high energy nuts before they ripen as they are resistant to the effects of tannin . This means there are few ripe acorns left for the reds to eat.
Grey squirrels will raid the red squirrels’ carefully hidden winter food stores.
Failure for reds to compete for habitat and food means they are in poorer health, they may not fight off disease as successfully and females may then have a reduced capacity to breed.
Threat of disease
Squirrel pox virus (SQPV) has had devastating effects on red squirrel populations. It is the most significant threat brought by the grey squirrel, who have some immunity to the disease. (see https://www.lancswt.org.uk/news/squirrel-pox-outbreak-formby)
Change of tree species
Changing habitats by selective tree planting over time has reduced the coniferous forests favoured by red squirrels.
It is estimated within 10 – 15years the red squirrel could become extinct without conservation management
Protecting red squirrels.
Red squirrel reserves and strongholds have been developed country wide in regions where scientists believed they had the greatest chance of long term survival. Areas designated contained established red squirrel populations and lacked grey squirrels. They were also considered to be isolated enough to create a natural barrier to greys moving in. These sites include, Northumberland, Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Merseyside in the North of England.
These habitats are managed to maximise benefits to the red squirrel whilst simultaneously making it as unattractive as possible for greys. A variety of mature pine trees are maintained and managed, ensuring food is available all year and that there is a solid tree canopy for the squirrels to travel safely through the forest. Grey squirrel control measures such as preventing broad leaved trees which are favoured by greys is also key to reducing the competition.
At Giddy Gate Farm we are big fans of our native red squirrels, some of whom live only 10 minutes up the road from us in Formby Pine woods!
You can visit the National Trust in Formby to walk in the pine woods and spot the red squirrels.
Numbers are starting to stabilise in Scotland due to the efforts in management conservation, increased awareness of their plight and also the increase in the Pine Martin who selectively preys upon the grey squirrel.
Red squirrels are currently protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
If you are lucky enough to live in an area where red squirrels are, we hope you will continue to welcome them into your gardens.