Saving the Red Squirrel

Across the planet conservationists battle to save species from extinction due to habitat loss and invasive species. It’s no different here in Scotland with a successful breeding programme for our Scottish wildcats. And the successful re-introduction of the white-tailed sea eagle. The red squirrel is a native species which is under threat. And has sadly seen numbers decline due to different factors.  With reddish brown fur and tufted ears they are instantly recognisable. They were once found across the UK, but have disappeared from most of the country due to the introduction of grey squirrels and habitat loss. Now red squirrels are confined to Scotland, pockets of northern England and Wales and small islands off England’s south coast.

Causes of decline

This autumn if you see squirrels scurrying around in parks and gardens in Edinburgh looking for food to store. They are most likely grey squirrels which are not native to Scotland. Introduced to the UK from North America in Victorian times, the grey squirrel is larger than the red and can drive reds out of their habitat in a matter of years. In recent times they have also carried squirrelpox, which although harmless to themselves is fatal to reds which have no natural immunity.

Reds have also suffered decline due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Red squirrels need woodland to survive and can be found in coniferous, broadleaved and mixed woodland. When areas of forest are cut back to leave isolated pockets this leaves areas which are too small to support a thriving population. Squirrels rely on trees for food with their diet mainly made up of seeds and nuts. Pine seeds are a particular favourite, but they will also take hazelnuts, and the seeds of larch and spruce. Reds also use the trees for mating and raising their young.

To try to gain a widespread survey of the squirrel population, 2nd-8th October sees the Great Scottish Squirrel Survey which aims to collect data to improve understanding of how squirrel populations are changing over time and help direct conservation action.

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is an excellent website promoting awareness of the red squirrel and offering suggestions for activities such as Red Squirrel Rambles and puzzles, a map of sightings and news updates.

What can be done?

Campaign groups can put pressure on governments to reject planning applications for development in sensitive areas. They can also raise awareness through promotions such as The Great Scottish Squirrel Survey

Local landowners can seize the initiative and come to together to form their own projects such as Cairngorms Connect which aims to restore habitats and protect endangered wildlife.

You can put food out to encourage red squirrels if you live in an area with a population, and take part in citizen science projects such as The Great Scottish Squirrel Survey

If you would like to see red squirrels, but there aren’t any in your area you could try visiting RSPB reserve Loch Garten and Scottish Wildlife Trust Loch of the Lowes.     They both have red squirrel feeders so you are able to view the squirrels up close.

I was lucky enough to see a red squirrel in the woodlands at Scone Palace Gardens which has free entry in the winter months.

You can use Library Search to find books, e-books and articles on squirrels, conservation and ecology.

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Photo source Peasre O’Halloran

By Vivenne Hamilton