The Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

Timid and beautiful, graceful and athletic, the red squirrel is Britain’s only native squirrel. Its Latin name is now misleading. Sciurus comes from two Greek words – skia meaning shadow and oura meaning tail. This still aptly describes an animal which sits in the shadow of its own tail. Vulgaris, however, means common, and the red squirrel is now far from common. Its status now is rare and declining.

The red squirrel has been in retreat since Queen Victoria was on the throne which was when grey squirrels were first introduced into Britain. Of the estimated surviving 20,000 red squirrels in England, the majority live in the north, with major concentrations in Cumbria and Northumberland. Smaller, isolated populations survive further south in places like the Isle of Wight. The reds are also under threat in the rest of the U.K. In February 2006 it was announced that the squirrelpox virus had reached the reds of Kielder Forest, the largest, single remaining population in England. Scotland which has by far the largest population of reds in the UK, approximately 120,000, saw its first outbreak of the disease in red squirrels in 2007 near Lockerbie. Since then, further cases have been reported in the Annan, Dalton and Langholm areas.

If the red squirrel’s struggle for survival against the grey was viewed as a marathon, then the race has now reached the stage where the leading competitor has entered the stadium and only needs to complete one lap of the track to win. Unfortunately, this competitor isn’t the red.

There are over a dozen named subspecies of red squirrel in its natural range which covers a broad belt of land, stretching from Ireland in the west to Northern China in the east. In Europe they live as far north as Scandinavia and as far south as Italy, where greys have already taken over from the reds on the eastern coast and in the Po valley.

Because of its timid nature, you will be lucky to see a red squirrel in the areas where they still survive. Red in colour, but with wide variations from ginger, through red to dark brown. Reds moult twice a year, in the spring and summer, with the winter coat being considerably darker than the summer one. The characteristic ear tufts become a noticeable feature during the winter months. They weigh approximately 250/300 grams with the males usually being larger than the females. They have four fingers and five toes and, like humans, they can be right or left handed.

Red squirrels do not hibernate but on certain days in winter when the weather is particularly bad, they may not emerge from their dreys (nests). A red squirrel can have two or more dreys. Reds tend to breed only once in the spring but a second litter is possible in the summer. The young are called kittens (kits) and while there can be up to six in a litter, the average is three. Red squirrels live until they are about six years old.
Red squirrels are primarily seed eaters – pine, beech, hazel, chestnut etc. They will also eat tree flowers and buds and berries. Occasionally they have been known to take eggs, young birds and insects. Red squirrels are preyed on by foxes, stoats, cats, pine martins and goshawks.