Topic: Save the Red’s!
Author: Lara Gerard, Red Ranger Volunteer
Red squirrels are native to the United Kingdom, where they have lived for around 10,000 years. They are coppery red in colour, with a paler underbelly. Red squirrels are the smallest of the two with long, bushy tails and massive ear tufts, whereas grey squirrels are twice the size.
Characteristics, diet and habitat
Red squirrels are prevalent in coniferous and deciduous woods throughout Europe and Northern Asia. Their diet is primarily vegetarian; they enjoy seeds, nuts, berries, pinecones, and delectable delights. They are also omnivorous, consuming insects, eggs, and young birds.
Red squirrels build what is known as a ‘drey,’ which is a nest high in the tree canopy. They’re composed of bark strips, twigs and leaves, clumps of moss, and bird feathers. They usually build these dreys in the summer when they have more energy, but they utilise them in the winter for the gestation period or when the weather is severe. Unlike birds and small animals, squirrels seem unconcerned if their dreys are messy or uneven in form!
Grey squirrels are invasive to the UK
Grey squirrels were brought to the UK from North America in the 1870s as wedding presents for private animal collections and by affluent landowners. They have swiftly multiplied and spread throughout the UK, becoming an invasive species. They have caused many problems for our native species, with red squirrels now being endangered in the UK.
The problem with grey squirrels in the UK
Grey squirrels carry a disease known as “Squirrel pox,’ which is a terrifying illness that typically lasts 10- 14 days. It produces ulcers and scabs around the eyes of red squirrels. They are unable to feed, which causes them to become sluggish, and the disease spreads swiftly across the population, killing a high number of red squirrels. However, grey squirrels are unaffected by this virus.
Outcompete the reds
The grey squirrels outcompete the red squirrels for resources, including space, habitat, and food. Therefore, red squirrels are driven out of areas by the grey squirrels. Squirrels reproduce twice a year, with greys producing twice as much offspring as reds.
Both types of squirrels remove tree bark. However, grey squirrels peel bark at a quicker rate, which harms our ecosystems. Bark peeling (at the rate grey squirrels perform) makes our woodland trees more vulnerable to illnesses and diseases caused by exposed phloem (inner bark). Bark stripping on mature and young trees can cause severe scarring, making an opening for other tree pests to enter and causing tree mortality.
What we and others are doing to help
Many groups (like Reclaiming Reds) strive to maintain and restore the red squirrel population throughout the United Kingdom. Control strategies and legislation have been put in place to manage the invasive grey squirrel population in order to accomplish this.
There is continual monitoring of woodlands and squirrel populations. For example, transect surveys are used to observe what species are present and count the number of grey, and sightings of red and grey squirrels are collected. Fertility control is being considered as an alternative method to manage grey squirrel populations. This will offer a non-lethal management method to control population densities and support eradication efforts. For more information, watch the video below or read this article.
What you can do to help
Volunteering with a local red squirrel organisation is an excellent way to help. For example, you could volunteer with Reclaiming Reds, The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside, or British Red Squirrel.