Are they native?
The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is the only species of squirrel native to Great Britain. They have existed here since the Ice Age, almost 10,000 years ago. The red squirrel’s population on mainland Europe is widespread and although here they were once thought to be at an all time of 3.5 million they have now declined to around 140,000, the majority of which reside in Scotland.
Where do they live?
You will find the red squirrel living in both coniferous forest and temperate broadleaf woodlands. However now they need to fight for their survival, their most common habitat would be a large mature Scots Pine wood such as the Caledonian Forest, in the highlands of Scotland.
Thesquirrel’s home is called a drey. It is a nest made out of twigs in a branch-fork of a tree, forming a domed structure about 25 to 30 cm in diameter. They line this with moss, leaves, grass and bark. They can also create their dreys in tree hollows and sometimes woodpecker holes. Often they use more than one drey at a time and can share with both males and females that they are accustomed to, however
this usually stops once the female starts to raise her kits in the late spring, early summer.
What do they look like?
Male and female red squirrels look much the same and are both nimble and agile. They weigh around about 300 grams, have an average body length of approximately 22cm and a long tail which is nearly as long as their body. Their coat colour is usually reddish but can vary from almost white to almost black according to age, genetic variations and is season dependant. In winter the red squirrel has a thick, warm coat and bushy tail, with impressive ear tufts some 3cm long. In summer the coat and tail are thinner and sleeker and often the ear tufts disappear completely. Red squirrels have five digits (small thumbs) on all four limbs with long, strong claws essential for climbing. The front hands are very dextrous at manipulating small objects such as seeds and they appear to be either right or left-handed.
What do they do every day?
Red squirrels are diurnal and they do not hibernate. They are active for much of the day, often from before dawn until it is dark, pausing only for a midday rest. Red squirrels are however very elusive and spend much of their time in the tree canopy, which also helps them escape attack from foxes and birds of prey. They do not normally live in high densities (less than two per hectare). In more fragmented landscapes such as agricultural and suburban areas they exploit pockets of trees connected by hedgerows and other wildlife corridors.
They forage on the ground for brief spells, particularly in autumn when they collect acorns, beech masts and other nuts to store for winter. When red squirrels are not resting, feeding or foraging, they love a good scratch. They can also swim.The life expectancy of the red squirrel is thought to be between 3 to 7 years in the wild but much longer in captivity.
How do they breed?
The mating season often starts on warm days in January, the squirrels chasing each other through the branches. The female red squirrel may produce two litters in a good year, one in the spring (March/April) and the other in summer (July/August). There are, on average, three babies in a litter. They are called kits. The breeding drey is usually a little larger than normal with a thick, soft, grassy lining. The young are born blind and naked. If the mother is disturbed, she will carry the kits in her mouth, one by one, to another nest, which is sometimes quite a distance away. As the young develop, the female spends more and more time away from the drey, and by the time the kits are three weeks old she may leave them for several hours at a time. The male takes no part in rearing the young. At seven weeks the kits begin to venture away from the nest and at eight to ten weeks they are weaned and become independent. Their fluffy, darker baby coats change into the adult colour. The success of the breeding season, i.e. the numbers of babies born and raised, depends on the seed crop of the main trees where they live. Where there are plenty of acorns, pine cones etc. squirrels build up a lot of body fat and many survive the winter in good condition. This means they will start breeding early in the next year and rear more kits themselves. In a year when there is a shortage of tree seeds, the squirrels do not put on much fat and they may die from starvation or disease during the winter. Most of the survivors are not fit enough to breed successfully.