The red squirrel is one of Britain’s iconic species. With its rusty-orange coat, tufted ears and bushy red tail this cute creature is everyone’s favourite small mammal.
But it’s also one of the most elusive of our wildlife species not least because it is now confined largely to northern England, Scotland and parts of Wales.
Sadly this beautiful creature is now absent in most of southern England except for a small colony on the Isle of Wight and two small islands in Poole Harbour.
So imagine my joy last week when we saw not one but three very active red squirrels on a trip to Grasmere in the English Lake District.
They were a few feet away from the camper van, running up and down trees, chasing each other and feeding on a large cache of nuts!
I’m lucky enough to live in northern England so I’ve seen red squirrels before but this family were more brazen than most.
I’m sure they sensed our presence but they seemed happy to run around and feed only inches away from us. We watched gasping as they dangled upside down from a bird feeder and carefully opened the lid of a squirrel feeder to grab their nuts.
It was reminiscent of a scene from Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin books.
We watched as the male squirrel happily munched his way through 35 peanuts over the course of an hour. That’s even more chocolates than Tammy could get through on a Saturday night watching TV in the camper van!
So I Googled ‘how many peanuts can a red squirrel eat in one go?’ After all, there must be a limit. Apparently they stock up in bad weather but this was a spring-like day in February. So what was going on?
Perhaps the instant cache of food saw then in opportunistic mode – they were certainly competitive with each other to protect their nuts.
Survival of the fittest
Red squirrels are rare in the UK for a number of reasons. Many of their traditional habitats have shrunk and they’ve never adapted fully to living in deciduous woodlands.
The reds have also been overwhelmed by the non-native grey squirrel which has proved to be hardier and a strong competitor for food and habitats.
So they tend to be found largely in coniferous woodlands such as pine, spruce and fir trees in peripheral areas of the UK.
The grey squirrel was introduced to the UK from North America in the 19th Century. It out-competes the native red and has now replaced its British cousin in woodlands over much of England and Wales.
The grey squirrel is better suited to the environment in the British Isles and our broad-leaved woodlands. It’s also larger than the red and is better able to survive harsh winters and bad weather when food is in short supply.
The greys also carry a virus known as “squirrel pox” which can kill red squirrels and has decimated some populations.
Today there are only an estimated 150,000 red squirrels in the UK compared with over two million grey ones, many of which have moved into areas once the preserve of the reds.
But there are also suggestions that the red squirrel is hanging on well and making something of a comeback in some areas, partly as a result of conservation work.
Tammy’s top tips – Red Squirrels
The Red Squirrels website has a wealth of information about watching red squirrel and locations in the UK where you can find them. They’re also keen to hear about your red squirrel sightings.
For more detailed information about red squirrels the Red Squirrel Survival Trust has loads of material about conservation work.
Autumn is a brilliant time of year for red squirrel watching when these creatures are busy getting ready for winter.
In the Lake District the National Trust’s Grasmere and Keswick reserves are both good places for a squirrel safari. We watched our trio of reds on Shoulthwaite Farm located in Naddle, a beautiful camper van site between Keswick and Grasmere.
Elsewhere in England there are good opportunities to see red squirrels in , Brownsea Island (Dorset), Thetford Chase (East Anglia), Cannock Chase (Staffordshire), and the Hope Forest (Derbyshire). Wallington Hall in Northumberland has a bird hide and observatory from where red squirrels are often seen.
Formby (Merseyside) is the last outpost for red squirrels in the north-west of England. Its combination of dunes and conifer habitats are perfect for the British red squirrel.
There’s a great walk through the pine woods in the reserve where you may see squirrels if you stay still and keep quiet. Drop into the warden’s office to pick up a leaflet and get expert advice.
In Wales some of the best spots for red squirrels can be found in Anglesey, Clocaenog and Mid Wales. There’s a great website about red squirrels in Wales with full details and information about conservation projects.
Hunting for habitats
* Red squirrel habitat is coniferous woodland so focus your wildlife watching in northerly conifer woodlands.
* Red squirrels are smaller and lighter than the grey squirrel so they can reach the cones on the tips of the branches more easily. Look for them on the tops of conifers and tree canopy in woodlands in Scotland, Northern England and parts of Wales.
* Red squirrels like to eat seeds, berries, nuts and fruit. Look for them feeding on the forest floor as well as scrambling up tree trunks. They spend about three-quarters of their active day above the ground in trees and shrubs.
* Many reserves have red squirrels feeders which are successful in attracting the creatures at most times of the day.
* Timing your visit is crucial. During the autumn and winter the red squirrels are up early and may disappear at 11am for a short siesta.