The only squirrel currently found in Cornwall,
the grey squirrel is one of our most frequently seen mammals. It is regarded as a pest by many because of the damage done to trees and gardens and their predation of birds and eggs. The grey squirrel reaches a
maximum body size of about 280 mm, with a tail of another 215 mm, and weighing up to 720 g. The winter coat is a speckled grey above with white underparts, in the summer
the shorter coat is more brown, with reddish
patches along the flanks and paws. Black
(melanic) and albino individuals are not unusual. They are very vocal animals and can often be heard barking and churring in response to threats from other squirrels and predators. The red squirrel in contrast is a much smaller animal with uniform colouring (although this may vary from bright chestnut to grey-red) and with no white margin to its tail. The red squirrel also has prominent ear tufts from late summer to early winter. Attempts are currently underway to
reintroduce the red squirrel to Cornwall in a few discrete areas. Occasional records of red squirrels in recent years are probably misidentifications.
© Oliver Collar
Hind paw prints are about 45 mm long with the three long and narrow central toes
approximately equal in length. The front
paw is about 35 mm long and has 4 toes.
Droppings are similar in size and shape to rabbit droppings and are often left on
prominent branches, bird tables or the tops of tree stumps. Squirrels frequently strip
bark from trees, especially sycamore and beech, which often leaves scarring.
© Joshua Squires
Grey squirrels occur in open woodland and parkland, preferring woodland with a good
proportion (over 25%) of mature trees, especially oak. In Cornwall they are commonly
found in broad-leaved woodland, often in association with oak and hazel. They are
common in urban gardens where they take advantage of bird feeders and domestic
scraps. They eat primarily buds, flowers, fruits and nuts, but will also eat fungi, insects, birds’ eggs and fledglings, as well as garden produce. Squirrels store or bury acorns and seeds below the soil surface: these stores are then recovered using scent, when food is scarce.
Grey squirrels produce one or two litters of three young each year in a football-sized
nest, or drey, built in close to the trunk of a mature tree. They also build communal
dreys in which small groups of individuals may sleep. Breeding females are strongly
territorial and will chase away other squirrels, often with a load chattering scream.
In captivity animals may live to 20 years but in the wild this is closer to 3 or 4. There are few natural predators in the UK, although foxes may have an impact in conifer plantations, and most deaths are probably related to starvation, accidents and human intervention. Many animals are killed by cars, and domestic cats may kill younger squirrels. Intensive attempts at controlling grey squirrels by shooting, trapping, or poisoning may have short-term effects locally.
© Oliver Collar
The map shows that the grey squirrel is widespread, but patchily distributed throughout Cornwall. It is absent from areas of open moor and heath. The grey squirrel is indigenous to the eastern USA and was introduced into the UK from the 1870s. It has since spread to cover most of England and Wales. There are small pockets of grey squirrels in Scotland. It is generally absent from Europe apart from small areas of Italy.
Grey squirrel apparently tastes like a cross between duck and lamb and has been a
popular item on the butcher’s counter at Kingsley Village in Fraddon.
Did you know?:
The grey squirrel can leap over 4 m between trees and jump 3 m from the ground. It is also a capable swimmer.
Grey squirrels are often held responsible for the decline of the native red squirrel, possibly through out-competing for food as the red squirrel cannot digest acorns, and possibly through the introduction and transmission of the parapox virus which is lethal to the red squirrel.
The grey squirrel was introduced from the eastern USA between 1876 and 1929 at
over 30 sites across the UK. Having
spread rapidly, the grey squirrel is now generally regarded as a pest species and it is illegal to release them without a licence from Natural England.
Garden surveys. Drey transects. Road kill reports. Forestry pest control.