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Squirrel, red (Sciurus vulgaris)

One of our most iconic mammals, which has sadly disappeared from most of our woods.

Scientific name: Sciurus vulgaris

Family: Sciuridae

Appearance

Famed for their bright russet fur, red squirrels are actually quite variable in colour, ranging from vivid ginger to dark brown. During winter months, the fur is often tinged with grey and large tufts develop above the ears. They have a large bushy tail that is almost as long as their body. Weighing around 300g, red squirrels are significantly smaller than grey squirrels, which average about 540g.

Where and how to spot

Once widespread across the UK, significant numbers of red squirrels can now be found only in Scotland, the far north of England and Northern Ireland. There are also isolated populations in Wales, Merseyside and on small islands off England’s southern coast. A woodland specialist, red squirrels spend around three-quarters of their time in trees. Glen Finglas is just one Woodland Trust site where they can be found.

Feeding

Nuts and seeds are common red squirrel food. They will also eat tree flowers, buds and shoots, as well as bark and lichen.

Behaviour and breeding

In order to secure a mate, male squirrels will often chase a female through the tree tops for a prolonged period. Typically, a litter of up to six young, known as kits, are born in spring and a second litter may be born in summer if there is plenty of food available. The kits are raised in a nest, known, as a drey, which is built among tree branches. The maximum lifespan for the species is around six years.

Threats

The red squirrel’s decline has largely been driven by the introduction of the grey squirrel from North America in the early 20th century. The larger greys are able to outcompete reds, meaning there is less food available for the later. Greys also carry the squirrelpox virus, to which they are immune, but is fatal to reds. The British grey squirrel population is estimated at over 2.5 million, while only around 161,000 reds remain. Find out more about the threats facing red squirrels.

See the Woodland Trust's position on grey squirrel management.

Did you know?

• A female squirrel may mate with several different males.

• A squirrel’s fluffy tail helps it to balance, but also serves as a way of keeping warm in winter.

• Research has suggested that pine martens could help to boost red squirrel numbers by preying on grey squirrels where the species overlap.