In the UK there are two types of squirrel.
The dainty red squirrel with distinctive tufts on its ears is the native species.
More familiar is the larger grey squirrel with rounded ears, a silvery grey coat with brown highlights on the face and paws, and a pale underside. It is classified as an invasive non-native species having been introduced into the country in the 1800s from America. Unfortunately it has contributed to the decline of red squirrels, which are now only found in small pockets of the country.
Squirrels have bushy tails and sit up in a characteristic manner with their tails curled over their backs whilst they eat pinecones, acorns, nuts and seeds.
When grey squirrels move into an area, they become the dominant species because they compete more successfully for food and habitat and the red squirrel is pushed out. Grey squirrels also carry parapoxvirus that doesn’t seem to affect their health, but it is deadly when passed to red squirrels.
Where are red squirrels found?
In areas where there are no grey squirrels, the red ones have a much better chance of thriving. They are found in Scotland, on the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island, on the Formby coast and pine forests of Northumberland, Anglesey and the Lake District.
It’s estimated that there are approximately 140,000 red squirrels in the UK compared to 2.5 million grey squirrels, and according to the Wildlife Trusts website, red squirrels could become extinct in England in approximately 10 years.
Squirrels live in trees building their nests or ‘dreys’ out of twigs and leaves in the fork of a branch in the woodland canopy. Their sharp claws make it easy for them to run up and down trees. Grey squirrels are widespread and often seen in parks, towns, gardens and high tailing it across roads on overhead wires like animated tightrope walkers. Being exceptionally agile, they will raid bird feeders.
Though it’s rare to see a red squirrel, we are fortunate in Dorset to have the stronghold on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. You are likely to see a red squirrel once on the island because although shyer than greys, they are just as greedy and will venture out boldly onto bird feeders.
Life expectancy and breeding
Grey squirrels live for two to five years, red squirrels live for about six years.
Amorous male squirrels chase females up and down tree trunks and leap across branches. Females give birth to three or four young and can have two litters a year. The pups leave the nest when they are about 10-11 weeks old.
Last year I observed a trio of baby squirrels chasing each other through the trees and across my garden rather like Disney cartoon characters. They were entertaining to watch.
Do squirrels hibernate?
Neither species hibernate, but they may sleep for longer periods when it’s cold. They can be seen burying nuts and acorns in the autumn for the lean winter months.
Can you eat squirrels?
Red squirrels are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is an offence to intentionally kill, injure or capture one, or damage its nest.
Grey squirrels can cause problems for foresters and gamekeepers and have limited legal protection. Numbers can be controlled by shooting and trapping in a humane manner without causing distress to the animal. Some people eat them. I will never forget a family member once purchased a grey squirrel from a butcher and cooked it. He confirmed my suspicions when he informed me that it tasted disgusting – so don’t believe everything you read on the Internet about the flavour of squirrels.
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