General information about red squirrels
Red squirrels have been found in England since the end of the last Ice Age and are part of our natural heritage and native fauna.
Famous for their bright red/russet fur and long ear tufts, red squirrels are actually quite variable in colour, ranging from vivid ginger to dark brown. During winter months, the fur is often tinged with grey and large tufts develop above the ears. They have a large bushy tail that is almost as long as their body. Red squirrels are significantly smaller than grey squirrels.
Where do they live, how many are there?
Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) live in coniferous forests and deciduous woods in Europe and northern Asia. Their range extends from the UK, Ireland and Western Europe to Russia, Mongolia, and northwest China.
Numbers in the UK have fallen dramatically since grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) were introduced as an ornamental species in the 1870s.
Since then, the UK population of reds has dropped from around 3.5 million to between 120,000 to 160,000 individuals (according to different estimates). The population in England is thought to be as low as 20,000. The majority are in Scotland.
Where and how to spot this rare mammal
Once widespread across the UK, significant numbers of red squirrels can now be found only in Scotland, the far north of England and Northern Ireland. There are also isolated populations in Wales, Merseyside and on small islands off England’s southern coast. A woodland specialist, red squirrels spend around three-quarters of their time in trees.
If you want to see them in the wild, prime spotting times are early mornings and late afternoons, this is when they’re most active.
Behaviour and breeding
In order to secure a mate, male squirrels will often chase a female through the tree tops for a prolonged period. Typically, a litter of up to six young, known as kittens, are born in spring and a second litter may be born in summer if there is plenty of food available. The kits are raised in a nest, known, as a drey, which is built among tree branches. The maximum lifespan for the species is around six years.
Outside of the mating season, red squirrels tend to live alone.
Babies are born 45-48 days after mating and are looked after by their mothers. Kittens are weaned around 10 weeks when they develop a complete set of teeth. Some stay with their mothers over winter. Between 20 and 50 per cent of red squirrel kittens survive to adulthood.
What do red squirrels eat?
Nuts and seeds are common red squirrel food. They will also eat tree flowers, buds and shoots, as well as bark and lichen. They especially favour pine seeds, but also eat larch and spruce seeds. Because they disperse seeds, they play a vital role in the reforestation process.
When food is plentiful, they put on weight in the autumn to help them through the winter. This is important for breeding females, so that they are in good condition for producing young in the spring.
Do red squirrels hibernate?
Red squirrels don’t hibernate. In autumn they’ll spend time collecting food for the winter when they’ll be less active but they will still actually be awake.
Red squirrels are very elusive and spend much of their time in the tree canopy. Look out for large dreys in trees, scratch marks on bark, and chewed pine cones that look like chewed apple cores. Listen out for their 'chuk chuk' noise which is a vocalisation they often use.