Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Grey squirrels were introduced in Henbury, Cheshire in 1876. Since then, they have been gradually spreading and out-competing the native reds. The reds still hang on in isolated areas with a lot of local help. In the Ullswater valley, that help comes from the Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group http://www.penrithredsquirrels.org.uk, a local charity that employs red squirrel rangers to monitor red squirrels and cull greys across 650 square miles.
The Latin name for a red squirrel is Sciurus vulgaris, meaning "shade tail." The picture below of a blonde-tailed squirrel in a classic squirrel pose, shows why this makes sense!
Red squirrels thrive in coniferous woodland, eating spruce and pine seeds, but also eat all types of nuts, berries and fungi. Surprisingly, they are particularly fond of yew berries. Acorns are poisonous to red squirrels but not to greys who are often found in deciduous woodland and even eat acorns before they are ripe. Grey squirrels also take birds’ eggs and chicks and scavenge discarded picnic and takeaway debris. This ability to thrive on such variety has helped the greys to spread throughout the country, including in urban areas. Habitat destruction of woodland has contributed to the demise of the red squirrels.
Red squirrel groups have developed many tactics for helping to remove grey squirrels. These include camera traps that monitor squirrel corridors, and feeders that can trap grey squirrels! The greys weigh twice as much as the reds, so a squirrel feeder that weighs the squirrel, trapping the grey and not the red is an ingenious solution where the two occur together!
Many people in the Lake District put up squirrel feeders to encourage the red squirrels to visit. This additional food source helps them to survive lean periods and may enable them to have two litters of kits in a year instead of one (April and August). Kits are born blind and furless. By 7 weeks, they begin to venture from the nest and by 8 or 10 weeks, they are weaned. Baby coats are dark and fluffy, but once they are independent, they grow their adult coat. (My photographs show how much these adult coats can vary!)
Red squirrels have no road sense and 10% of them are killed on the roads despite an abundance of “slow down red squirrels” signs put up by the Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group and their members. Another factor that has been helping the red squirrels is the resurgence of pine martin numbers. Pine martins and red squirrels evolved together so the red squirrels are aware of the threat. Grey squirrels often forage on the ground and are much larger, so are less able to escape to the outermost branches of the trees. Research from both Wales and Northern Ireland has shown that though the pine martins do predate red squirrels, they take a larger proportion of greys where the two occur together, particularly the juveniles and females. Though there are few pine martin sitings in Cumbria, they are just across the border in Scotland, so may spread southwards in the near future. In the meantime, locals continue to feed the reds and report grey sitings to the Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group.
As a member of the Penrith and District Red Squirrel group, I regard my red squirrel pieces as an opportunity to raise awareness of the need to protect our endangered red squirrels. See https://www.ullswaterfeltart.com/red-squirrels