With winter approaching fast, most of the trees having lost their leaves, this is a great time to see red squirrels; they will be busy searching for food to see them through these bleak months. Be prepared to look up, as red squirrels spend most of their time in trees,
The red squirrel is the UK’s only native squirrel species, and was once a common sight, but sadly are now on the decline, they are now confined to Scotland, the Isle of Wight, Anglesey and pockets in the north of England, here in Cumbria we are quite lucky in that we have a number of good breeding areas. They are on the UK’s Threatened Species List.
Reds vary in colour from a very pale ginger to a dark brown and during winter can take on a greyish colour, some people might mistake these for the Grey Squirrel, however the red squirrel have tufted ears
Reds do not hibernate and will store fungi in trees and hide nuts and seeds in the ground 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 in the spring
Red squirrels usually produce 2-3 young, called kittens, in February to April and they often produce a second litter from May to June and this year I saw a pregnant female in September. They have a mainly vegetarian diet that includes seeds, hazelnuts and ripe acorns, tree shoots, bark and sapwood and I have seen then eating some sort of black fungus. They also occasionally take animal prey such as young birds and eggs.
Did you know? They have double-jointed ankles meaning they can move up and down trees with ease.
Squirrels build a nest which is called a Drey, it is a messy ball of leafy twigs about the same size as a football, lined with lots of layers of soft materials, such as moss, feathers, grass, leaves, shredded bark and pine needles. About 20 feet from the ground, they will build close to the trunk or in forks of branches where the tree is stronger and provides more support. They might even take over an old woodpeckers nest. The dreys can easily be confused with a crow or magpie nest.
The main threats to the red squirrel are loss of habitat and the Grey squirrel, which can carry a disease call Parapoxvirus, which doesn’t appear to affect them but will kill a red squirrel, I have seen many reds squirrels with Pox and it is not a nice sight, they are covered in lots of sores including on their feet and the poor things can hardly walk, they all eventually die. Like any other virus the Pox can also be spread by other means including humans.
They are also prey for foxes, stoats, buzzards and pine martens which are now being quietly reintroduced into Cumbria
If you want to see them the best times are usually early morning or late afternoon when they are most active, but be prepared to spend a lot of time looking for them, some days when I am out trying to photograph them it could be 2hrs before I find one and then only have about 5mins to take some images.
If you want to help their future, then why not join one of the local Red Squirrel conservation groups. Details can be found on the internet.