Species Biodiversity Action Plans (Summaries)

Species Biodiversity Action Plan -
Red squirrel

Common name: Red squirrel
Scientific name: Sciurus vulgaris

Description

This is the only squirrel native to Britain. They are generally active during the day (although in the summer they may rest for an hour or so around mid-day), spending most of their active time in trees and shrubs, their main food being tree seeds (although they also eat tree flowers and shoots, mushrooms, and fungi from under tree bark).

They are particularly well adapted to coniferous woodland, but in the absence of competition from grey squirrels, they can also be found in deciduous woods. Population densities can reach 1 per hectare, but are often lower than this.

Dreys (nests) are constructed from twigs with a lining of hair, moss and dried grass, and are located in a tree fork or hollow, or above a whorl of branches close to the stem of a conifer. Several squirrels may share a drey, or use the same one on different days. Breeding can begin in mid-winter and continue through the summer (although it is dependent on food availability), with females having one or two litters of 2-3 young per year.

Adult red squirrels can weigh up to 350g, and have a head and body length in the range 180-240mm (with a tail length of around 175mm). The fur colour can vary from bright ginger through to red and dark brown or black tinged with grey in winter. During the summer, the large ear tufts that are evident in winter disappear; and in some individuals the bushy tail bleaches white.

Legal Protection

  • The red squirrels appear in Appendix III of the Berne Convention (Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats) which requires that they be protected from exploitation (indiscriminate mass killing, trading and any means capable of causing local disappearance or serious disturbance to them) and managed to keep them out of danger.
  • They are also protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). Under Schedule 5, the deliberate killing, injuring, taking possessing, disturbing and selling, together with damaging, destroying or obstructing any structure or place of refuge are prohibited. Under Schedule 6, certain methods of killing or taking squirrels are specifically prohibited, and even humane trapping for research requires a licence.

Current Status

The red squirrel was once widespread in the UK's forests and woodlands, but has suffered considerably over the last 50 years and is now absent from most of England, being replaced by the grey squirrel. The current population is now estimated to be around 160,000, the bulk of which are to be found in Scotland, Ireland, northern England and parts of Wales. However, there are isolated populations on islands in Poole Harbour (Dorset), on the Isle of Wight, in the Thetford Forest (East Anglia) and at Cannock Chase (Staffordshire - although it was predicted that this population would disappear by 2000).

Threats and Issues

  • The spread of grey squirrels - grey squirrels are not thought to actively chase out reds, or that they brought a disease from America to which reds are particularly vulnerable. Instead it would appear that they are able to out compete them for food, particularly in deciduous and mixed woodlands.
  • Habitat fragmentation - makes some areas less suitable for red squirrels, and increases their vulnerability to displacement by grey squirrels.
  • Disease.

Objectives (as pertinent to agriculture)

The national species action plan specifies two objectives:

  • To maintain and enhance current red squirrel populations through good management, where appropriate.
  • To re-establish red squirrel populations if appropriate.

Conservation Advice

The conservation of red squirrels is a complex matter, since it would appear to be competition from grey squirrels rather than a lack of suitable habitat that is the cause of their decline. Consequently, it may be that providing suitable (mixed coniferous) woodland on farms is only of benefit if grey squirrels can be kept out due to the isolation of the site; however, in reality it is unlikely that greys will fail to colonise a woodland. Nevertheless, there is currently work being done in order to identify techniques for conserving red squirrels, including:

1) Keeping grey squirrels out or their numbers down

  • Habitat management - tree species composition and age structure may be managed to favour red squirrels rather than greys.
  • Food hoppers - special food hoppers are being trialled that allow red squirrels access, but not the heavier greys.

2) Re-introductions

  • Research is being carried out into the feasibility of re-introducing populations into large areas of coniferous woodland; however, this can only be performed under a licence from English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales or Scottish Natural Heritage using captive bred animals, and should therefore not be attempted on farm. Re-introducing animals will only work if the habitat if large enough and suitable, and the grey squirrel population is being managed.

References and Further Information

Betts, C.J. (1998). Checklist of Protected British Species. Christopher Betts Environmental Biology, Worcester, UK.

Flowerdew, J.R. (1997). Mammal Biodiversity in Agricultural Habitats. In: Biodiversity and Conservation in Agriculture: Proceedings of a Symposium held at The Stakis Brighton Metropole Hotel 17 November 1997, (Ed. Kirkwood, R.C.), pp. 25-40. British Crop Protection Council, Farnham, UK.

Gurnell, J. (1994). The Red Squirrel. The Mammal Society, London.

The Mammal Society. (1997). Fact Sheet No. 3: The Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris. The Mammal Society, London.

UK Steering Group. (1995). Biodiversity: The UK Steering Group Report, Volume 2: Action Plans. HMSO, London.

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