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  • Writer's pictureSpeyside Wildlife

The Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel (Judith Nott)

The Red Squirrel – possibly one of the most iconic species of the Highlands of Scotland – is much loved by visitors and locals alike here in the Cairngorm National Park.

In the heart of the Cairngorms, we are fortunate enough to meet these charismatic little creatures on our daily walks or see them scamper from tree to tree as we pass by. They appear on our window sills to steal hazelnuts and swing nonchalantly upside down from our bird feeders. Some of us feign annoyance on behalf of the birds, but secretly spend long periods watching their hypnotic swinging motion, wondering at the strength of those claws and the sheer fluffiness of their tails.

Little wonder then that visitors to Speyside Wildlife are so full of questions about these gorgeous little animals….

Where do Red Squirrels live?

Red Squirrels can be found across much of Europe and Northern Asia where they are not thought of as being endangered, such are their numbers. Here in the UK however, habitat loss and the presence of the Grey Squirrel has, alongside other factors, sent the Red Squirrel population into decline. Scotland is now home to 75% of the UK’s Red Squirrel population with numbers here thought to be around 140,000. Given their ability to live and feed happily in a range of forest types they can be found in woodland across the north and central Highlands, as well as to the south and west in Dumfries and Galloway and parts of the Scottish Borders.

Red Squirrel, Pine Forest (John Osborne)

What kind of home do Red Squirrels make?

High up in the trees and safe from predators, it builds a home known as a drey, a large nest of sticks lined with moss.  It will often have three or four of these dreys, which it uses on a regular basis, as well as a larger breeding drey in which to give birth and raise it’s young, known as kittens or kits.

What do Red Squirrels eat?

Nuts, seeds, buds, fungi and shoots are all favoured by the Red Squirrel, as are berries, bark, lichen and tree flowers.

Nuts, seeds, buds, fungi and shoots are all favoured by the Red Squirrel (Judith Nott)

Christmas dinner in the snow (Judith Nott)

How big are Red Squirrels and how long do they live?

Red Squirrels weigh up to 350g and can measure up to 24cm, with the tail growing up to an additional 20cm.

Red Squirrels weigh up to 350g and can measure up to 24cm, with the tail growing up to an additional 20cm (Judith Nott)

When do Red Squirrels breed and how many young do they have?

When there has been a good seed crop from the trees where they live, healthy and strong Red Squirrels will start to breed in January. Often two litters are produced – one in April and one in August – each with an average of three babies.  At seven or eight weeks of age these kittens are weaned and become fully independent. When the seed crop has been poor, Red Squirrel mortality can be high over the winter or lead to the animals not being healthy and strong enough to breed.

What does Red Squirrel scat (poo) look like?

The droppings are either cylindrical or rounded and up to 8mm in length, often found in large numbers at a favourite feeding site.

Do Red Squirrels make a noise?

They will communicate by squeaking/chirping/barking, often to their young by means of communicating danger.

Do Red Squirrels have predators?

Raptors such as owls may take a Red Squirrel given the chance, however dreys built among branches make this difficult. Pine Marten may also take young Squirrels.

Are Red Squirrels nocturnal?

No. Their most active time is the morning and late afternoon/evening.

Is the Red Squirrel endangered?

Sadly numbers have fallen considerably since the introduction of Grey Squirrels in the 1870s. At that time it is thought there were around 3.5 million Red Squirrels in the UK. That number is now closer to 140,000 with England being home to only around 15,000.

Grey Squirrels carry the virus Squirrelpox, which although unharmful to them, can, and often does, kill Red Squirrels. Competition for food – Grey Squirrels will eat green acorns before the Reds can get to them – as well as the stress causing the Red Squirrels not to breed, is contributing to the decrease in population. Other factors such as loss of woodland over the last century and a huge increase in road traffic has not helped the plight of this wonderfully appealing little animal.

If you would like to see Red Squirrels and other wildlife within the Cairngorms National Park, you can book a guided day out with our experienced guides.

Having a scratch! (Judith Nott)

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