Red Squirrels: Turning The Tide

The red squirrel is the only species of squirrel native to the UK. As a native species, the red squirrel is an integral part of our countryside and our natural heritage. Without actionable conservation, they could be extinct throughout England within the next 10 years.

Learn More About Red Squirrels

The red squirrel is the only species of squirrel native to the UK. As a native species, the red squirrel is an integral part of our countryside and our natural heritage.

It is often thought that red squirrels need to live in conifers, mainly after the reds took refuge in the conifer plantations because it is a habitat not preferred by the grey. However, red squirrels can live in most rural, suburban and even some urban habitats as long as there are no threats from grey squirrels.

How many are there? Current population estimates of red squirrels stand at approximately 138,000 throughout the UK. Of that it is estimated that approximately 120,000 are in Scotland, 3,000 in Wales and 15,000 in England. Red squirrels are mainly dispersed in England throughout the north with Kielder Forest, Northumberland supporting around 60% of the total population. However, it is also thought that there could be as many as 2.5 million grey squirrels in the UK. As there is no current method of comprehensively surveying grey squirrels, this could be a considerable underestimation.

Red or Grey? Red squirrels can be distinguished from grey squirrels in a number of ways. Surprisingly, fur colour is not definitive as both species can have a wide variation in their coats. Coat colour can vary both geographically (i.e squirrels in different regions) and seasonally, as squirrels moult their body fur twice a year. The moult that occurs in the spring starts on the head and moves along the body, whereas the sequence in reverse in the autumn. One of the most obvious distinguishing factors is size. Red squirrels weigh between 270-360g and with a head and body length of 19-23cm. Grey squirrels are much larger, typically weighing between 400-720g with a head and body length of 25-30cm

Red squirrels are well known for having tufts on their ears. These tufts are present for most of the year but are moulted in late summer and regrow in early autumn. They are most prominent in the winter months. Grey squirrels never have ear tufts. Another way to tell the difference between the species is to look at the tail. The hair on a grey squirrels tail is banded with different colours and the white tips on the tail create a ‘halo’ effect. Although red squirrels may have varying colour tails the hair will all be one colour.

Red Squirrel Threats

Although red squirrel populations are healthy on mainland Europe, the red squirrel is currently suffering major decline. Numbers in the UK have fallen from a one-time high thought to be around 3.5 million, to a current estimated population of around 120,000. The population in England is thought to be as low as 15,000.  Predators, viruses and changes to the landscape all pose threats to our native red squirrel but the introduction of the grey squirrel from America is the main reason behind the sharp decline. Grey squirrels were first introduced to England from North America in 1876 as an ornamental species to populate the grounds of stately homes. Around 30 separate introductions occurred until 1930 when the damage caused by the grey squirrel was recognised and it was made illegal to release a grey squirrel to the wild. Grey squirrels have rapidly spread and colonised much of mainland England with detriment to our native red squirrel.

Grey squirrels evolved on the eastern seaboard of America in oak and hickory forests. As a result, they have developed a resistance to a chemical called tannin, which is found in seeds such as acorns. Unripe acorns are particularly rich in tannins but are a high-energy food source. Red squirrels find tannins unpalatable, so grey squirrels can decimate crops of acorns before they ripen and become a viable food source for reds. Greys also raid caches (stores) of seeds that red squirrels have buried. The combination of grey squirrels achieving higher densities, with a higher daily food requirement, and the ability to exploit tannin-rich seeds, provides grey squirrels with a very strong ‘competitive advantage’ over reds in mixed and broadleaf woodland. Failure to gain enough food prevents female reds from reproducing, and existing members of the population can gradually starve. Through the effects of competition alone, greys will replace reds well within 10 years in this habitat type.

The most significant threat associated with grey squirrels is the spread and transmission of a disease called squirrelpox virus (SQPV). It can take only one grey squirrel to introduce this virus to a local population of red squirrels and then the virus can spread throughout the reds with devastating effect. Where a grey squirrel introduces SQPV, red squirrel population decline has been observed.