When I lived in the Eden valley, Cumbria it was always a joy to see the red squirrels in abundance. Gorgeous animals they are and I have been lucky to see them so often.
I love walking the valley and seeking out the places I know to look, to get some red squirrel pictures.
The red squirrel numbers in the UK have drastically fallen over the years due to disease, habitat loss and of course the introduction of the Grey Squirrel from North America.
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Red Squirrels In UK
The red squirrel is the only true native squirrel in the UK. And in fact, up until 150 years ago they would have been a very common sight. Their population back then was about 3.5 million. And had been living and thriving for thousands of years.
Their numbers have fallen dramatically since then and today there are only less than 150,000.
And even then they only survive in small areas in England. Here in the Eden Valley, Cumbria as well as places like Brownsea Island and parts of Northumberland. So what is killing them off? Let’s take a look.
Red squirrel habitat
The red squirrel is increasingly being confined or found in forested areas. Plantations that are rich in pine trees. This has led to a bit of a misconception of what a red squirrel needs.
The loss of a lot of their natural woodland put them in retreat plus the invading grey squirrels are less likely to go for conifer trees, so they can thrive a little better.
Food and diet
They eat a whole variety of seeds and nuts. You can see from some of my images that I could get them out of the canopy by enticing them with cob nuts and hazelnuts, with their shells on.
Here is a red squirrel fact that a lot of people didn’t realise:
They do not hibernate.
Yes, they do fatten up and store food to get through winter but they stay awake throughout. Their food source will then be heavily supplemented by fungi and fruits when seeds are not as available.
Red squirrel vs grey squirrel
The grey squirrel is the major reason for the huge decline in red squirrel numbers over those last 150 years. So much so they are endangered.
In about 1870, rich landowners and bankers could buy more exotic animals on a whim for ornamental and recreation purposes. You guessed it, at this time they thought it would be a fun idea to release a few American greys out in the UK countryside.
There were so many unforeseen consequences to the red squirrel population in doing this:
The grey squirrel carries a disease, Squirrel Pox (Parapoxvirus). It doesn’t harm the grey squirrel at all, they just carry it. However if a red squirrel catches the disease they die very painfully within a couple of weeks.
Grey squirrels are bigger than reds. Not only do they eat all the food sources faster but they do not wait until things like acorns are ripe for when the reds needs them. They eat them green and thus decimate food sources.
Red squirrels are sensitive fellows. If they feel threatened they breed less.
Red squirrel babies
Speaking of breeding. Baby red squirrels are called Kittens. And sorry I didn’t manage to get any photos of those. Remember how honoured I am to see the adults.
The squirrels give birth to 2 or 3 kittens but unfortunately less than half never make it to being an adult. Another factor in declining numbers.
Helping their numbers grow
There is so much hard work being done to stop the red squirrel becoming any more endangered or extinct.
Culling of grey squirrels alone will not do it. In fact it is illegal in this country to set a grey squirrel free if you trap one.
Borders are being set up around areas with red squirrels to keep greys out as much as possible. Creating Buffer areas of arable land, but also connecting woodland areas they thrive with careful planting.
Organisations that maintain pine forests that contain reds have a lot to think about. If you see them taking down other leafy trees within then this is for the good of the Red Squirrel. Those trees would invite in the greys.
Seeing a red squirrel in the wild is always a joy. If you are in a treelined area of Northern England keep your eyes open and keep some patience, they could be around.
But above all respect them please. And be honoured to see them. I know I feel so every time.