A tail of two squirrels
Spotting a red squirrel is a treat – something you don’t get to do very often. But it hasn’t always been this way. These little red acrobats used to roam across all of Britain and were a much more common sight. Now, when we see a squirrel in central or southern Scotland it’s usually a grey, the red’s larger American cousin.
Red squirrels have always had a bit of a tough time. After arriving from mainland Europe at the end of the last ice age, populations have fluctuated wildly over the years. Reported as extinct in many parts of Scotland due to large-scale deforestation in the 18th century, numbers had risen again by the early 1900’s thanks to widespread conifer planting and introduction of squirrels from England.
But what’s caused red squirrels to go from widespread numbers to the elusive creatures they often are today? We take a look at a few of the main factors causing it.
It’s hard to miss a red squirrel when you do spot one. Their bright fur and little ear tufts make them stand out in the forest.
They may end up with their distinctive red coats, but their young (kittens) are born without hair, or teeth! These defenseless little creatures grow quickly, and are ready to leave the nest at around 10 weeks.
Home for a squirrel is called a drey, and are usually found in treetops or hollow tree trunks. Red squirrels do not hibernate over winter, but venture outside into the cold far less frequently than normal.
Grey squirrels come to stay
A native of North America, the grey squirrel is similar to the red in many ways, sharing a similar diet and lifestyle. Grey squirrels however are larger and heavier, and breed more regularly and successfully than red squirrels.
First introduced to Britain in the 1870s as a fashionable addition to estates, they have spread widely across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the southern half of Scotland.
An inconvenient truth
Since the introduction of grey squirrels, their red counterparts have seen a dramatic decrease in numbers. This has been down to a range of factors.
Grey squirrels are almost twice the weight of their red cousins, meaning they need a lot more food to survive. They out-compete the reds for food and even pilfer the food caches that red squirrels store away for winter, depriving the reds of food at critical times of the year. Greys are also able to store more fat to survive the long winter months.
With the arrival of grey squirrels came the introduction of the deadly squirrelpox virus. While most grey squirrels (who act as carriers) are immune to this nasty disease, red squirrels are not so lucky, with the disease proving fatal.
Loss of habitat has also played a part in the decrease in numbers. Felling of woods and hedgerows reduces the number of suitable places to build dreys, and increases competition for remaining locations.
The fight to save the reds
The UK Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation was published in 1996, and provided a framework for conservation work. Further action plans were produced in the following 20 years, which has lead to a coordinated effort to stop the decrease in red squirrel numbers. In Scotland, the Scottish Squirrel Group has produced the Scottish Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation, which guides action for this species.
Projects such as Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels work with local communities to improve habitats and conditions, while combating the spread of grey squirrels. You can help by reporting squirrel sightings, making donations or even adopting a red squirrel!
Where to spot a red squirrel
Red squirrels can be found across most of Scotland, but the pine forests of the Highlands and Dumfries & Galloway are particularly good for spotting them.
Wildlife hides at The Lodge Visitor Centre and Kirroughtree Visitor Centre are a great place to watch other woodland wildlife as well as squirrels. Enjoy a walk through the ancient oakwoods of Ariundle and Ard Airigh on the Sunart peninsula, another popular home for red squirrels.
For those visiting the Cairngorms National Park, red squirrels live amongst the pine trees, and are often seen rummaging in the peanut boxes behind the visitor centre at Glenmore Forest Park. The spectacular Glen Affric is also a wonderful place to watch squirrels munching on Scots pine seeds.