Have you spotted some big, untidy nest-like structures in the trees? You might well have found a squirrel nest, known as a drey. Here are our tips on where, when and how to find them.

What does a squirrel’s drey look like?

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.

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. Where a squirrel adopts an existing hole for its den, it uses similar materials to line it. It may have gnawed the entrance to comfortably fit a squirrel through too.

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.

Dreys look the same whether they are made by red or grey squirrels. 

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, like a rook or magpie.

Things get more complicated too, as squirrels sometimes build inside old bird nests! 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.

Other good signs that squirrels are nearby include:

  • chewed pine cones on the ground that look like apple cores
  • scratch marks on the bark
  • a ‘chuk chuk’ sound.

The only surefire way to know if it's a squirrel drey and if the resident is red or grey is to sit and wait patiently for them to appear!

Discover the differences between red and grey squirrels

Where and when to see squirrels and their dreys

Squirrels can be found almost everywhere in the UK, though whether they are red or grey depends on the area. 

England, Wales and much of Northern Ireland are now dominated by the grey squirrel which prefers broadleaved woodland and is common in parks and gardens too. Introduced from America in the 1870s, we now have over 2.5 million in the UK.

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

There is some overlap between grey and red populations, but the best places to spot reds are:

  • Northumberland
  • Lake District
  • Scotland
  • Brownsea Island off the Dorset coast.

Reds spend more time in the trees than their grey counterparts, so they can be difficult to track down. Spring is a good time to spot them, when they are looking for food for their new kits and before the leaves have filled the trees.

Around mid to late April, the bushy-tailed babies will start to venture out of the drey too. A month or so later they'll 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 binoculars and head to your local wood 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.

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How can I help red squirrels?

Record your sightings

To help protect red squirrels, many groups record sightings. If you live in a red squirrel hotspot, you could share your sightings. They may be interested if you've seen greys too, as the combined data helps check location and health of reds. Search online for your local group.

Provide a ready-made home

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 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.

Take care with tree work

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.

Create more havens for wildlife

You can also help red squirrels and other native species by caring for their habitat. Planting more trees and protecting existing woods is crucial for wildlife. You can help to make a difference in lots of ways, from joining an online campaign or making a donation to volunteering or becoming a member

Learn more about squirrels and what we're doing to help