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Spotlight On: Red Squirrel

Red squirrel on feeders

It’s Squirrel Appreciation Day on 21st January, so what better time to look more closely at the UK’s only native species, the red squirrel. These charismatic rodents are common across mainland Europe and Asia. However, they have declined drastically here in the UK due to a combination of habitat loss and the introduction of grey squirrels from America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of this, they are protected by law in the UK. There are also various conservation projects to help them recover. Read on to find out more about this beautiful woodland resident.

Red Squirrel Basics

Red squirrels are reddish brown in colour with a creamy white underside. The exact colouration varies between individuals and across their range, however. Some animals are extremely dark brown, for example, while others are a more strawberry blonde shade. Fur colour also varies between seasons. The thicker winter coat is usually darker than the thinner summer one. Red squirrels also grow more noticeable ear tufts in winter. Their long, bushy tails, meanwhile, are almost as long again as their bodies and help them balance in the trees and keep warm. Sharp claws and double-jointed ankles help them to climb trees easily.

Red squirrel
Red squirrels have sharp claws and double-jointed ankles to help them climb trees

Found across Eurasia, red squirrels are true woodland dwellers, spending much of their time in the trees. In the north of their range they live mostly in coniferous forests, but can be found in mixed woodland elsewhere, including in the UK. Their nests, or dreys, are built fairly high up in the chosen tree and made of twigs, moss and leaves. Squirrels eat a variety of nuts, fruits and seeds, and in the autumn, cache extra food in a number of locations ready for the winter. To stop any watching rivals from stealing their food, they will sometimes pretend to hide food at a decoy site before burying the real items elsewhere. Like grey squirrels, they will also readily come to feeders.

Red squirrel at feeder
Red squirrels readily visit feeding stations

Population Declines

Although red squirrels are common across much of their range, the UK population has fallen drastically over the last 150 years. From an estimated 3.5 million, there are now between 140,000 and 160,000. Some estimates are higher, at around 287,000 squirrels, but the data is patchy, hence the large estimate range. What is clear is the range contraction between as late as 1945 and the present day. Where once red squirrels lived across much of the UK, they are now restricted to Scotland, the north of England, small pockets in mainland Wales and the islands of Anglesey, Brownsea and Isle of Wight. One of the main drivers of this decline is habitat loss and fragmentation. We now have some of the lowest forest levels in Europe. Demand for agricultural land following World War II, timber requirements during both world wars and road and house building have all reduced the UK’s woodlands. Much of the woodland we do have is in poor condition or consists solely of uniform conifer plantation, which can hinder red squirrel recovery, as we’ll see shortly.

Brownsea Island red squirrel
This squirrel is on Brownsea Island, one of only two sites in southern England they can be found

The other main factor in the red squirrel’s decline is the introduction of North American grey squirrels on a number of occasions between the 1870s and 1930s. Grey squirrels are bigger than our native reds and, while they don’t directly fight with them, outcompete them for food resources. Research suggests that grey squirrels have better spatial memories than reds so are better able to remember where they cached food in winter. Studies also show that greys are better at problem-solving than their smaller relatives. Crucially, grey squirrels also carry the squirrelpox virus. While the disease seems to have little effect on greys who have developed immunity to it, it is fatal to reds. As grey squirrels spread throughout England and Wales and came into contact with reds, they very quickly introduced the virus into the native species’ population with devastating results. The picture is similar on the island of Ireland, as well.

Grey squirrels
Grey squirrels are a major cause of the red squirrel’s decline

Hopes for Recovery

Despite the huge decline of our red squirrel population, there are some hopes for the future. A number of projects around the country are working to help red squirrels. The UK Squirrel Accord (UKSA) is a partnership of over 40 organisations working to not only help native squirrels recover and expand, but also improve woodland health. For the past five years, they have been carrying out fertility control research with the aim of using this humane and cost-and time-effective method of control on grey squirrels. A number of projects currently use lethal control methods on greys to prevent them encroaching on existing red squirrel populations. Island populations are carefully monitored, with the public encouraged to report any grey squirrel sightings in order to prevent any stowaways from establishing colonies.

Grey squirrel
Controlling grey squirrel breeding would benefit red squirrels hugely

Another cause for hope is the recovery of pine martens in the UK. With less persecution and greater legal protections, pine marten populations are recovering from historic lows. As well as expanding their range in their Scottish stronghold, they are also doing so in northern England and Wales. There are also small numbers in the Forest of Dean and New Forest. Although pine martens will predate red squirrels, because they have spent millennia evolving together, the rodents have learnt to evade martens to a large extent. Grey squirrels, though, have less experience of the mustelids and so are not as adept at avoiding predation. This will undoubtedly help red squirrels. One note of caution concerns uniform conifer planting, however. This has increased in the UK of late in an effort to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. However, research shows that the lack of food variety in these plantations makes pine martens more likely to predate red squirrels in them than in mixed woodland.

Pine marten
The pine marten’s recovery is already helping red squirrels

Red Squirrels and the Law

Our only native squirrel is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). This makes it an offence to:

  • Intentionally kill, injure or take a red squirrel.
  • Intentionally or recklessly damage or destroy any structure or place a red squirrel uses for shelter or protection or disturb a red squirrel while it is using such a place.
  • Possess a dead or live red squirrel, or any part of a red squirrel, unless you can show that the animal was taken legally.
  • Sell, or offer for sale, a wild red squirrel or any part of a red squirrel.

It is also illegal to use any type of snare, trap, poison or other weapon in such a way as to injure a red squirrel.

Licences are required for any work, including conservation surveying, which would interfere directly with red squirrels or their dreys. This includes capturing animals for tagging but not indirect surveys such as drey counts or hair tube surveys. It also has implications for forestry activities. As such, Forestry England has in depth guidance on activities that might impact red squirrels. In Scotland, the equivalent body, Forestry and Land Scotland, is licenced by the regulatory body NatureScot to assess where it is and isn’t appropriate to carry out work with regard to the species.

Red squirrel
A typical view of a red squirrel

In addition to these legal protections, the red squirrel is also a BAP priority species. These are species regarded as being most in need of conservation measures due to their vulnerability. Under the Environment Act (2021), there are legally binding targets on priority species’ abundance set for 2030. This includes red squirrels. Further afield, they are also covered under Appendix III of the Bern Convention.

Grey Squirrels and the Law

As a non-native invasive species, UK legislation also covers grey squirrels. It is illegal to release or allow to escape any captive grey squirrel into the wild. It is also illegal to keep one in captivity without a licence. Although there is no need for a licence to trap grey squirrels as part of any control programme, any trapped grey squirrel must be humanely destroyed. The law states that drowning is an inhumane method and should not be used. Traps must also be checked at least once every 24 hours. If there is a risk of accidentally trapping red squirrels or any other non-target species, traps must be checked twice a day.

Protected Mammal Surveys

We have a wealth of experience surveying for protected mammals, including red squirrels. We can also advise on mitigation measures for avoiding disturbance, as well as help with licensing. Find out more about protected species surveys here.