One Sunday last Autumn I experienced a demotivated funk for no particular reason. Just one of those days. What I needed most was the thing I least felt like; getting fresh air and a nature hit. I’d wanted to go Red Squirrel spotting but lost motivation for even that.
Fortunately Wild Daddy and Caroline knew best, dragging me on a cheer-up-Mummy mission, to seek one of the UK’s most endangered mammals. I’d never seen Reds in the wild except, tragically, as road-kill in Scotland.
A location that ‘virtually guarantees’ Red Squirrel sightings in Northumberland is Woodhorn Museum, on the site of an old Colliery. In addition to the extensive museum showcasing disused pit buildings there is a 2′ guage railway, play areas, a cafe and shop, woodland walks and 3 squirrel feeding stations around the perimeter where wild Reds can supplement their natural diets in safety. It’s a great place to visit in it’s own right and though I returned to the feeding station 4 times, Caroline was able to make halloween decorations and we enjoyed a trail around the fascinating museum too.
Love at First Sight
It’s not as though I didn’t expect it, but these energetic little animals are stunningly gorgeous! The photo below was my first view – from quite a distance – but if that had been all I’d seen I’d have been happy.
The log from the pine tree allows the squirrels into the museum grounds to access the feeder and a bowl of water. I went back to the feeding station several times, each time being ‘allowed’ to get closer by the cheeky rodents! All these photos are from the same visit.
Estimates suggest there are now as few as 120,000 Red Squirrels in the UK, with around 2.5 million Greys and that Reds could be extinct here within a decade. The native Reds are intolerably cute but sadly can now be found only in a few places in the UK due to competition from the North American grey squirrels, introduced here in the 1870s. Greys are bigger, stronger and arrived with the virulent squirrelpox disease to which our Reds had no immunity.
Grey Squirrel culling
Most people in the south of the UK will never see a Red Squirrel and many people don’t know they still exist. It’s a huge conservation issue, with grey squirrels culled in certain areas to assist the reds’ survival and reds provided with food and nesting boxes in other areas to help them thrive. Grey squirrel culling will come as tough news to those who love feeding and seeing grey squirrels around the country and for kids who enjoy tempting greys with treats in our London parks.
In order to help the conservation effort, grey squirrels are trapped under licence in some UK areas with entreperneurial business people making good money selling squirrel pie to pubs and restaurants. I even found a recipe online for roast squirrel and much as I’d love to see our native Reds back thriving again I can’t bring myself to share the recipe!
Where to find Red Squirrels in the UK
The main UK Red Squirrel population is in Scotland, but they are also on the Isle of Wight, the Poole Harbour islands, in parts of Wales, Cumbria, Northumberland, Merseyside, Lancashire, north-west Durham and the Yorkshire Dales, with a reintroduction programme on Anglesey.
Visit the Red Squirrels Northern England web page for a map of where you can find our native squirrel in the north east.
How To Spot the Difference
Other than the obvious colour, what are the main differences between Reds and Greys?
My first Red at Woodhorn, 2016, and a Grey on my birdfeeder in Stoke, some years ago
- Reds are roughly half the size of greys
- Reds are a warm red-brown colour with a bushy, dark brown tail and cream underside
- Greys are silver-grey with some orangey-red tinges, a white underside and a white ‘halo’ around the tail
- Reds have ear tufts which moult every autumn.
- Greys have rounded, mouse-like ears and do not have ear tufts
The Red Squirrel Survival Trust lists more fascinating differences.
Report a Red Squirrel sighting
If you spot a Red Squirrel in the wild please report it to one of the organisations below for monitoring.
Things to do with the Kids
Spot a drey – a squirrel’s home. Look at least 6m off the ground for spherical nests about 30cm in diameter with a twig frame. They are lined with moss and grass which you’re unlikely to see and may be spotted in tree holes or against the trunk and branches.
Bury acorns – on a recent nature reserve visit the children hid acorns in woodland grass and returned half an hour later to see if they could find them. Proof of how hard it is to remember where one’s next meal is after such a short time, let along weeks or months as the squirrels do.
Dress up – here’s Caroline in nutty model mode!
What is a Squirrel?
an agile tree-dwelling rodent with a bushy tail, typically feeding on nuts and seeds.
1. Squirrel something away
hide money or something of value in a safe place (like a squirrel overwintering its nuts by burying them in the ground)
2. Move in an inquisitive and restless manner (like a squirrel scurrying around in the woods)
Red Squirrel Facts
- Baby squirrels are called kittens and are born blind and naked
- Their scientific name for Reds is Sciurus vulgaris
- They can live for up to 5 or 6 years in the wild
- Reds weigh between 250-350g, are about 18-24cm long with a bushy, 14-20cm tail
- They moult twice a year in winter and late summer, and moult their ear tufts in autumn
- All squirrels can swim
- Red Squirrels can locate food buried up to a foot deep in snow
- They live in both conifererous and broadleaved woodland, eating spruce and pine cones, acorns fungi, bark and sap and berries, storing excess food underground or in tree trunk gaps
- The don’t hibernate but can spend several days in the trees in poor weather
- Reds can live at altitudes up to 2000m in the Alps and Pyrenees.
Gone in a flash..
I’m glad it was ‘just one of those days’ or I’d never have met my first Red Squirrel.