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Spring is officially here! That wonderful time of year when flowers bloom, trees blossom, the sun shines, birds sing and the days lengthen. It’s also prime time for many of our native birds to start nesting in preparation for the breeding season. But have you spotted some big, untidy nest-looking structures in the trees already? You might well have found a squirrel nest, known as a drey.

Squirrels can be found almost everywhere in the UK. England, Wales and much of Northern Ireland are now dominated by the grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, which favours broadleaved woodland and is also common in parks and gardens in towns and cities. Introduced from America in the 1870s, we now have over 2.5 million of them in the UK.

Unfortunately they brought disease and competition for our native red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris. Now mostly restricted to Scotland, the red squirrel population has dropped to around 140,000.

What does a squirrel’s drey look like?

Dreys look the same whether they are made by red or grey squirrels. Both take advantage of nature to build a cosy home to protect them from the weather and raise their kits.

Usually at least six metres from the ground, they build close to the trunk or in forks of branches where the tree is stronger and provides more support. If they can find a naturally occurring hole in a tree trunk, or one created by a woodpecker, they might claim it as a den instead.

Squirrels scurry around collecting whatever they can find to make a warm, dry haven for the coming months. The result is a messy ball of leafy twigs about the same size as a football, lined with lots of layers of soft materials, such as moss, feathers, grass, leaves, shredded bark and pine needles. If a hole has been adopted as a den, it has a similar lining and the entrance is gnawed to comfortably fit a squirrel through.

Squirrels have a summer home and a winter home. The summer drey is flatter, lighter and more open as protection from the weather is less important. In autumn, this might be adapted or abandoned altogether in favour of a freshly built drey suitable for winter. In the colder, wetter weather, they need somewhere safe, warm and dry to raise the first litter of the year, born around February. When the cold weather hits, they will stay at home for a few days at a time, but they don’t actually hibernate and will regularly head out to find food.

Squirrels tend to be solitary, but in winter will share their dreys with each other to stay warm and reduce the risk of homelessness if a drey is taken over or damaged. They often scamper between two or three at any one time and sometimes use as many as eight, so lots of dreys in the trees doesn’t necessarily mean lots of squirrels. These dreys can be close to each other or scattered over a couple of hectares. Sharing usually stops when female squirrels are raising their young.

Where and when to see squirrels and their dreys

Our beloved red squirrels can be found in both conifer and broadleaved woodland. There is some overlap between grey and red populations, but the best places to spot reds are Northumberland, the Lake District and much of Scotland, where 75% of the population now resides. The island of Brownsea off the Dorset coast is also a safe haven as greys haven’t made it across the water.

As reds spend much more time in the trees than their grey counterparts they can be difficult to track down, but spring is a good time to spot them, before the leaves fill the canopy and shield them from view. With winter behind us, they are leaving the comfort of their cosy dreys and dens to look for food to replenish their energy levels and feed the kits they’ve had in the last few weeks.

Around mid to late April, these bushy tailed babies will start to venture out of the drey too and a month or so later will leave to build a home of their own. In May, adults will be looking to breed again so you may see them scampering around looking for a mate – these kittens will be born around July and August.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a red squirrel area, grab your trusty binoculars and head to your local wood, preferably in the morning or late afternoon when squirrels are most active. Scout the area for dreys, wait quietly and patiently and you might be lucky enough to get a view of the whole family.

If you live further south, perhaps you could plan a trip to seek out these lovable creatures – I know I am!

Dreys can be confused with bird nests

It can be difficult to tell from the ground if a nest belongs to a squirrel or a large bird, such as a rook or magpie. It gets more complicated too, as squirrels sometimes build inside bird nests, or take over a disused one that is well sheltered. Birds have been known to build their nests on top of dreys too, and the structure can pass back and forth between squirrels and birds for several seasons.

A good clue is whether there are any leaves woven into the nest, as squirrels tend to keep them but birds don’t. Position in the tree can also help, as birds nest closer to the top and further out along the branches.

If you’re still not sure, check the ground for chewed pine cones that look like apple cores, look for scratch marks on the bark and see if you can hear a ‘chuk chuk’ sound. These are all good signs that squirrels are nearby, though there’s no way to tell if they are grey or red. The only surefire way to know is to sit and wait patiently for the residents to appear.

How can I help red squirrels?

To help protect red squirrels, many groups document sightings. If you live in an area where reds are still resident, you could help add to their records. They often want to record sightings of greys too – the combined data helps check location and health of reds and whether greys are encroaching on their populations. Search online for your local group.

Buying or making a squirrel box or feeder is a great way to help reds, and sizing the entry hole carefully will mean larger grey squirrels can’t get in. Food sources for squirrels are scarcer in spring and summer, so putting out a mix of nuts, seeds, fruit and veg can be very welcome.

It’s important they still look for natural food sources and don’t come to rely on you though, so only leave a small amount every few days.

If you are responsible for any trees, make sure you check them carefully for nests before carrying out any maintenance work, especially during the breeding season.

Finally, you can help red squirrels and other native wildlife by helping us to create, protect and restore their woodland habitat across the UK.

Find out more about woodland wildlife and what we're doing to help