The red squirrel used to be a familiar sight for UK residents in bygone days, but today there are only around 140,000 of our native species still in existence – while the number of non-native grey squirrels has rocketed to 2.5 million!
Urgent conservation efforts are underway to protect Britain’s much-loved red squirrel, which has existed here for thousands of years, but numbers have declined gradually over the past 140 years, with the introduction of the grey squirrel during the Victorian era being cited as a prime factor.
The exact origins of the red squirrel are unknown, although scientists believe they may have existed in Europe during the middle of the Pleistocene period, between 120,000 and 780,000 years ago, after fossilised remains were found in Hungary.
After definitive evidence was uncovered at Binnel Point on the Isle of Wight, the earliest confirmed remains of the species in Britain date back around 4,500 years. However, the general consensus in the scientific world is that they have been in the region for around 10,000 years, since the end of the last Ice Age.
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The scientific name for the red squirrel is Sciurus Vulgaris. With a combined length of its head and body being between 19cm and 23cm, and its tail between 15cm and 20cm long, an adult squirrel weighs 250g to 340g – males and females are the same size.
The red squirrel has a long tail to help it balance and steer, as it jumps from tree to tree and runs along the branches. The tail can also wrap around the animal’s body to keep it warm while asleep.
Sharp, curved claws help it to ascend and descend trunks and branches – it can even climb walls as a result of its claws. The species has strong hind legs that help it to leap between trees and it can even swim.
Depending on its location and the time of year, the red squirrel’s fur can vary in colour, from bright red to a very deep shade that can look almost black – although bright red coats are most common in Britain. Its underside is always cream-coloured. Shedding its coat twice annually, it switches to a lighter, thinner summer coat. When it reaches adulthood, it has quite large ear tufts.
The main difference between a red and grey squirrel is the size. The much larger eastern grey squirrel has a combined head and body length of between 25cm and 30cm and can weigh up to 800g. Predominantly grey, this can sometimes look like a brownish colour. With a large, very bushy tail, both male and female grey squirrels are the same size and have the same colouring.
The red squirrel is seldom seen in British gardens today. They were a more common sight up until the Victorians introduced the grey squirrel from North America. The first report of grey squirrels escaping and establishing themselves in the wild in Britain dates from 1876. They had been brought into the UK as a seemingly lovely addition to Victorian gardens. Prior to this, red squirrels could be found in just about every area of the UK.
Now, they tend to live in woodland areas, preferring coniferous woods and Scots pine. The best time to spot red squirrels is when there are fewer leaves on the trees in autumn and winter. This is the time of year when they are also more likely to be out and about gathering food for the winter.
There is a population of red squirrels remaining in Grasmere in the Lake District, where they can be seen on walking trails and clustering round lawns. The Grasmere Red Squirrel Group leads conservation work to protect the species.
Across the UK, the red squirrel population has been in decline since the late 1800s. Conservationists say this is due to a combination of factors, including the prevalence of grey squirrels, disease and a loss of habitat.
If both grey and red squirrels live in the same area, the greys tend to monopolise any food supply. A virus called squirrelpox can be carried by greys, who can live with it, but it can kill red squirrels, whose population has fallen 25 times faster in areas where the disease exists.
Red squirrels used to be actively hunted in the New Forest in Hampshire during the late 19th century. In 1889, it was reported almost 2,300 had been shot there because they were believed to have a detrimental effect on the timber industry.
According to James Richie, the former assistant keeper of the Royal Museum of Scotland, red squirrels were “persecuted to a startling level” in forests across Scotland in the 1800s. In 1903, a conservation group, The Highland Squirrel Club, was launched to counter the “devastation” brought to the populations in the woods of east Ross Shire and Inverness. The group logged the number of red squirrels being killed and reported that between 1903 and the end of 1917, more than 60,400 squirrels had been killed in the region.
Today, rather than reds being deliberately killed by people, the main cause of their demise is their grey counterpart. Our native reds are mainly found in remote, wilder locations.
In 1945, a conservation survey showed red squirrels could be found all over Britain, while greys existed mainly in southern England. By 2010, when a similar study was carried out, the map had changed considerably. Reds could be found only in small pockets of the British Isles, while the greys had almost completely taken over most of the country.
Unfortunately, conservationists say that without proper management, our red squirrels could be wiped out in England in just 10 years, so time is running out. They say it is apparent that the red and grey squirrels can’t live in the same areas, or the reds will suffer.
Red squirrels have a royal supporter in Prince Charles, the Duke of Cornwall. He is protector of the reds living on Balmoral Estate and is said to “adore” them. Red Squirrels Northern England, a conservation charity, was created at the invitation of Prince Charles in 2011. It supports various initiatives to protect red squirrels, using strategic and targeted action.
The Duke of Cornwall was pictured in the national press in November 2018 to celebrate his 70th birthday, when it was revealed he even allowed squirrels from the estate into his home! He said he took great delight in watching them playing, running round and chasing each other. They are regular visitors to his house at Birkhall.
In an interview, he revealed he would sit quietly, so that the squirrels could play unhindered. He leaves jackets on a chair, putting nuts in the pockets, to attract the squirrels. He watches them with only their tails sticking out of the pockets as they gather the nuts. He calls them “incredibly special creatures”.
As patron of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, which protects the endangered species, he is said to be “completely infatuated” with them – and even recognises the ones on the Balmoral Estate as individuals, giving them names. He is a lifelong supporter of saving the environment and promoting green initiatives.
National charity, the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, is fighting to Save Our Squirrels. So is the Wildlife Trust, which is working to increase public awareness, provide better education and lead scientific monitoring and habitat management.
It is a sobering thought that if conservation efforts don’t succeed, we may no longer see red squirrels at all by the end of the 2020s if their numbers continue to fall at their current rate.
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