Britain’s only native squirrel has been extinct
in Cornwall since at least the 1980s, but is now the subject of a reintroduction
programme under the auspices of the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project. With a body of 180 to 240 mm in length, a tail of 140 to 195 mm, and weighing up to 435 g, the red squirrel is generally smaller than the more
familiar grey squirrel. It varies in colour from bright ginger to greyish-brown. The coat is brightest just after the spring moult and becomes darker in the winter. The chest and belly fur is white or cream. In late summer the animals grow distinctive ear tufts and
these are largest during the winter, disappearing in the summer. The long, bushy tail is dark after the autumn moult but gradually fades to almost white in the late summer. The sexes are similar in appearance.
Albino and melanistic (black) individuals have
also been recorded in the UK.
In the event that the reintroduction of red squirrels is successful, it is possible that these charismatic animals may once again become a feature of Cornish woodland. For the immediate future it is much more likely that any squirrel seen will be a grey, rather
than a red.
Tracks and droppings are similar to those of the grey squirrel, although smaller.
Feeding signs including shredded pine cones and cracked hazel nuts are also similar. Red squirrels tend to cache excess food in trees, whereas grey squirrels often bury it.
Once widely distributed across the UK, red squirrel populations have fluctuated dramatically in the past. In the 18th and 19th centuries reintroductions from England to Scotland and Ireland took place. From a peak around 1900 numbers have declined and the red squirrel is now extinct across large areas of England. The red squirrel is protected from all forms of interference under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The red squirrel is the subject of both national and Cornwall biodiversity action plans.
Did you know?:
In 1953 the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents launched a road safetycampaign for children led by Tufty the Squirrel. At its peak there were 24,500 Tufty Clubs across the UK. Tufty, as the name suggests, is definitely a red squirrel.
© Bernie Pettersen
In the UK red squirrels favour conifer woodland and plantations, although in the
absence of grey squirrels they are also found in mixed and deciduous woods, copses
and even gardens. It is thought that grey squirrels are more efficient at utilising acorns in oak woodland and therefore out-compete the reds. The size of the animal’s home range varies with habitat quality. In mixed deciduous woodland it can be as little as 1 ha, and up to 30 ha in commercial conifer plantation. Red squirrels feed on a mix of seeds, fruits, and fungi although they will also eat buds, shoots, and flowers, as well as tree bark. When food is abundant caches may be assembled for later use.
Nests, or dreys, are built high in trees and close to the trunk. Red squirrels breed in
early spring and have one, or occasionally two, litters of up to 6 kits each year. The first litter is born in March or April and the kits leave the nest after about 7 weeks. Weaning is completed a few weeks later although the kits may stay with the mother over winter. Red squirrels are active from sunrise to sunset; they are generally solitary but may nest communally during the cooler months. Although they do not hibernate, bad weather can dramatically reduce their activity.
Red squirrels can live for 4 or 5 years in the wild, and occasionally even longer.
Predators include foxes, stoats, and domestic cats as well as goshawks (rare in
Cornwall) and buzzards. Some animals are killed by road traffic. Viral diseases,
specifically squirrel pox and adenovirus, are a more significant threat. Squirrel pox
is carried by up to 70% of grey squirrels with no apparent symptoms, however if red
squirrels become infected they suffer open lesions of the eyes, mouth, feet and anus
which rapidly become further infected and death follows within 2 or 3 weeks.
Adenovirus, which causes intestinal lesions and diarrhoea, has been associated with significant numbers of deaths during reintroduction programmes. Cornwall’s very own
wildlife vet, Vic Simpson, has carried out ground-breaking research into diseases of
red squirrels in collaboration with sites around the country.
© Bernie Pettersen
Red squirrels have been considered extinct in Cornwallsince 1984. An ongoing reintroduction programme may change this situation. In the UK populations survive in the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Cumbria, Northumberland and large areas of Scotland. Elsewhere they are widespread from Ireland in the west across to Korea in the east.
The first releases of red squirrels on the mainland are planned for West Penwith and the Lizard: both areas are effectively peninsulas and therefore it is hoped that it will be easier to prevent the return of grey squirrels after trapping has taken place. Releases of red squirrels on Tresco have recently taken place. Although red squirrels are not indigenous to the Isles
of Scilly, grey squirrels are absent.
Incidental sightings supported by photographic evidence. Road casualties. Trappingsurveys carried out under licence from Natural England. Hair tube surveys. Baitedcamera traps. These methods can provide definitive evidence of red squirrels inCornwall. Other methods such as feeding signs, droppings and sightings are notsuitable in the presence of so many grey squirrels.