Jenny Bryce is an SNH operations officer and wildlife ecologist, who leads on projects involving squirrels and wildcats. For our regular Species of the Month post Jenny takes a look at a species close to her heart – the red squirrel.
Having recently moved house from the country into town, I’ve just seen my first red squirrel foraging for beach nuts under the trees across the road. And I’m delighted! I studied red squirrels as a student and am still involved in conservation work to protect them, but to see them in our towns and cities is still a real treat.
In our Big 5 campaign last year the ‘Tufted acrobat’ was voted as the public’s second favourite species. I think they are a favourite with many because they’re active during the day, unlike many other mammals, and we are still fortunate in being able to see them in woodlands across large parts of the country.
The main populations are in the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll, Perthshire, Angus, Highland and Grampian. Highland is the only region that currently has red squirrels but no grey squirrels.
This Big 5 map provides some ideas of good places to see red squirrels:
Autumn is a time when squirrels are said to gather their nuts and they do, but red squirrels are scatter hoarders. This means they store food for the winter and spring by burying it across the area where they live rather than in a single cache or midden. They do this to prevent it being squirreled away by other animals, including birds, mice or other squirrels, or from rotting on the ground.
However, in conifer forests, they feed on the small seeds contained within the cones and these tend to stay on the trees for much longer and hence the squirrels can forage in the canopy at their leisure; hence these trees form a natural larder.
Heading towards winter and colder weather red squirrels will be at their bushiest, donning their winter coats and crinkly ear tufts. Their daily activity pattern shrinks towards the middle and the warmest part of the day, but contrary to some beliefs, they do not hibernate.
Squirrel nests, or dreys, are also important for keeping them warm in the winter. Dreys are made of bundles of twigs and lined with moss, leaves, needles and bark. One study in Scandinavia estimated the difference in temperate inside the drey was 20-30o above the ambient temperatures of -5o. Dreys can be used by several squirrels normally over a period of time, but occasionally at the same time.
But our red squirrels are under threat from grey squirrels – both due to competition for food and from the spread of disease. Squirrelpox virus does not obviously affect grey squirrels, but is carried by them and if passed to red squirrels is normally fatal. Hence we have been concerned that grey squirrels will continue to replace red squirrels as they have in central Scotland and much of England and Wales.
However, with the help of gamekeepers, foresters, local communities, volunteers, and with co-ordination from the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels Project, red squirrels appear to be holding their own and in some places making a come-back.
Red squirrels are now being regularly seen in Aberdeen city, the Annan valley in Dumfriesshire and parts of the Borders, where their numbers had dramatically declined in recent years. The targeted work to remove grey squirrels looks to be creating the conditions to allow red squirrels to reclaim their past haunts. This work will need to continue into the future, but the results give us more optimism that seeing red squirrels gathering their nuts will be a pleasure many of us can continue to enjoy.
Final squirrel photo: (c) Shelley Shipton-Knight (SSRS facebook site)
On the SNH website:
Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels links: