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A close-up of a red squirrel on the forest floor.

MEET Sciurus vulgaris

"Living under the shadow if its tail" - after the Greek for Sciurus

The Eurasian red squirrel used to be a common sight throughout Great Britain, but since the American grey squirrel was introduced to the country in Victorian times it's been pretty tough for our native reds. We have compiled a list of FAQs below and links to loads of additional resources should you be interested in learning more.

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  • Tell me about Sciurus vulgaris
    Sciurus vulgaris is the Latin name for the Eurasian Red Squirrel. It is distinct from the Eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which is commonly referred to as simply the grey squirrel, which is native to North America. Length: 20cm plus a tail of 18cm Weight: 280-350g Average lifespan: 3 years (maximum 5-6 years) Despite their name, red squirrels aren't always bright rusty red - some are pale brown, grey or almost black and their tails often go blond in summer. They are a lot smaller than greys, about half the size. Keep an eye out for their paws as these are usually still a rusty red/brown colour if it's a red. Here we see a red squirrel, but its tail and back are grey Here's what you might say is a classic red squirrel picture.
  • What are the differences between reds and greys?
    The native extent of the red squirrel The native extent of the grey squirrel How have the reds fared since 1945? Here's how to identify the difference between Red and Grey Squirrels, courtesy of the Wildlife Trusts Mid-Wales Red Squirrel Project
  • Can red and greys mate?
    No, red and grey squirrels cannot breed together.
  • When do they mate?
    Spring time. They mate between January and March and again between June and July, depending on food availability in the previous autumn.
  • How can I tell if a squirrel has been feeding nearby?
    Red squirrels are most often found in coniferous woods. You may also find pine cones that have been nibbled, leaving what looks like an apple core behind. They can also be found in broadleaved woodland where they feast on hazelnuts by cracking the shell in half. Unfortunately, you cannot distinguish whether cones or shells have been left behind by red or grey squirrels, so further evidence is needed. A red squirrel eating a hazelnut A red squirrel eating a pine cone
  • Can squirrels be right or left handed/pawed?
    You can tell this by looking at the teeth marks left behind in pine cones once they've been eaten. Left-handed squirrels hold the cone with the top towards the left and use their left paw to totate the cone and right-handed squirrels do the opposite. You can see a spiral pattern left behind on the cone once they've discarded it.
  • When is the best time to spot red squirrels?
    You can see squirrels year round because they don't hibernate. You may hear the scratching sound of a red squirrel's claws in the branches before you see it - and it might chatter crossly or even stamp its feet if you surprise it. Red squirrels are active in the daytime but, like us, don't really like being out in bad weather. They also enjoy an afternoon nap, especially when it's hot. From January into early spring watch for red squirrels racing through the trees and spiraling up and down the trunks. This is mating time and the males are chasing after the females.
  • I saw a squirrel I though was a red, but it didn't have ear tufts. Is it a grey or a red?
    Despite their name, red squirrels aren't always bright rusty red - some are pale brown, grey or almost black and their tails often go quite blond in summer. They are a lot smaller than greys, about half the size. Keep an eye out for their paws as these are usually still a rusty red/brown colour if it's a red.
    Red squirrels can jump more than 2m and survive a fall of more than 12m without injury. Squirrels can swim. Red squirrels have four fingers on each paw, plus a vestigial thumb, and five toes. Their double-jointed ankles allow them to go down a tree headfirst. Squirrels have an exceptionally good sense of smell. They can find buried food underneath 30cm of snow and know if a nut is rotten without opening it. In Finland, "squirrel pelts" were used as a currency before coins were introduced. Oravannakka, or "squirrel pelt" is still used there as an expression for money. In the original fairytale, Cinderella's slippers were made of red squirrel pelt. The French vair (fur) became verre (glass)
  • Where do they live?
    Red squirrels are widespread in Europe, but have largely been replaced by the grey squirrel in England, Wales and local pockets in Italy. They are absent from southern Spain and the Mediterranean islands. Red squirrels live in both conifer and broadleaved woodland. They can be found at altitudes up to 200m.
  • What do they eat naturally?
    Red squirrels love seeds, particularly from pine, spruce and larch cones. It has been estimated that a single squirrel can eat the seeds from up to 20,000 cones in a year! They also eat nuts, fungi, shoots and fruits of shrubs and trees, bark, sap and sometimes birds' eggs and insects. A red squirrel can tell if a nut is good or bad just by shaking it in its paws. Look out for fungi placed high up on tree branches in the autumn: squirrels leave them out to dry before hiding them away for the winter, along with stores of seeds and nuts.
  • Where do they spend the winter
  • Can reds and greys be found together in the same woodland?
    Yes, but the greys take over after a while so they only tend to share for 10-15 years. Red and grey squirrels eat the same types of tree seed including oak acorns. Interestingly, dietary studies have revealed that the greys are better able to extract the proteins and energy stored in acorns than are reds. Where oak is present in a landscape it therefore gives greys a competitive advantage. Grey squirrels are almost twice the weight of red squirrels and consequently require more energy per day. In upland spruce forests where tree seeds are smaller, grey squirrels find it difficult to eat enough to satisfy their basic needs and the smaller red squirrel is better able to survive. These facts help explain why regionally where grey squirrels are present, red squirrels persist for longest in coniferous stands. Both red and grey squirrels are, for rodents, relatively conservative breeders with adult females typically producing one or two litters annually; each of 1-8 young. In contrast there are behavioural differences between the species with greys spending 70% of their time active on the forest floor and red squirrels only 30%. This separation might act to reduce the amount of direct contact betwwen them, but as grey squirrels live at mush higher population densities in broadleaved woodlands than red squirrels, the high number of individuals acts to raise the potential for contact. There is however, relatively little direct interaction between the species and when it occurs it appears limited to the occasional aggressive interaction at a food source. Red and grey squirrels may use the same tree hollow or drey, albeit at different times, and they may also scent mark at the same locations. The possibility of these types of indirect interaction means that there always remains the potential for disease transmission between the species.
  • What is a drey?
    Red squirrels live in a sperical nest (drey) of approximately 30cm in diameter, which has a frame of twigs and is lined with moss and grass. The drey is usually at least 6m off the ground and may be in a hole in a tree or set against the trunk and branches. Each squirrel may use several dreys. They do not hibernate, but are less active when the weather conditions are bad and can remain in their dreys for several days at a time. Squirrels make more than one drey to confuse predators and in case one gets damaged. They will also abandon a drey if it is too full of fleas. Both reds and greys use dreys and often use each other's so you need to actually see a squirrel using one to know if reds or greys are the current residents.
  • How do I spot them?
    Most importantly, look up for reds! Whereas greys spend 70% of the time active on the forest floor, reds spend 70% of their time in the tree canopy.
  • Do they keep the same partner?
    No, squirrels have no fixed partners.
  • How many kits do they have?
    A litter of 1-8 live young (usually 3-4). If there is a poor cone crop the previous autumn, first litters may not be born until the summer. Red squirrels can have two litters a year if there's plentiful food the previous autumn. In a really, really good year some can have three litters.
  • When do they have their young?
    Red squirrels produce 1-2 litters a year between April and September.
  • How long is the gestation period?
    Pregnancies last between 36-42 days.
  • How long does it take for the yound to wean and become independent?
    The young are called kittens (kitts) and are born with their eyes closed, without teeth or hair. They are weaned at 10 weeks, at which point they are ready to leave the drey. Parental care involves only the female.
  • Do they hibernate?
    No, neither do grey squirrels. We just don't seem to see them as often in winter as they're hiding and keeping warm in their winter homes (dreys). Red squirrels unlike other small mammals do not hibernate and need to store enough food by 'caching'; burying it underground and stashing it in tree crevices (sometimes referred to as a larder) in autumn to see them through the winter months. They will also eat copious amounts in autumn, while food is plentiful to put weight on before the onset of winter and this is important for breeding females, to maintain good condition for producing young in the spring.
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