Yorkshire cycling & wildlife

Moss-covered roots, and leaves, Nidderdale

Red squirrels

Red squirrel, Yorkshire Dales
Red squirrel, Yorkshire Dales

Native to Britain, red squirrels live in woodland, spending much of their time high up in the canopy of the trees. In many parts of the country, they have been displaced by the American grey squirrel. They still thrive in Scotland and Ireland, and there are population pockets in places including the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, and Wensleydale in Yorkshire.

Red squirrels: classification

Red squirrels are rodents. Their scientific name is Sciurus vulgaris (common squirrel).

Red squirrels: distribution

Our red squirrels are found predominantly in Scotland. It is home to about 121,000 of Britain's 161,000 red squirrels (Britain's Mammals, by David Wembridge & Clare Bowen).

Many of the red squirrels in Britain today are descended from squirrels introduced from Sweden and central Europe over a period of 150 years. In northeastern Britain, squirrels translocated from Scandinavia around 1966 dominate the gene pool.

The grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was brought to Britain from North America (1876-1930). It carries the squirrel parapoxvirus, which often kills red squirrels when transmitted to them (Wikipedia). Together with past hunting and habitat loss, this has led to a severe decline of red squirrel populations in England and Wales. They cling on in certain isolated spots.

Red squirrels in Wensleydale

Red squirrel, Widdale
Red squirrel, Widdale

Red squirrels still live in Wensleydale. They are thriving in Widdale, west of Hawes, where there's a Widdale Red Squirrel Reserve. Along with neighbouring Langstrothdale, forest in Widdale is managed for the squirrels, as part of the Red Squirrels Northern England conservation project.

Because they spend much of their time high up in the trees, they can be hard to see. That's why a red squirrel viewing area has been created in Widdale, at Snaizeholme. It's a woodland clearing, with squirrel feeders in the centre. Red squirrel sightings are pretty much guaranteed.

You can take the Little White Bus from outside the Dales Countryside museum in Hawes.

Red squirrels: description and behaviour

Red squirrel, Yorkshire Dales

Red squirrels are 18-24cm long (head and body), with a tail that is 14-20cm (Britain's Mammals). A long tail is useful for balance. Reds weigh 250-300g.

Red squirrels' coats moult twice during the year - once in the spring, for a lighter summer coat, then again in the late summer, when they grow a warmer coat for the winter. In the summer moult, their ear tufts temporarily disappear.

The summer coat tends to be rusty red-brown; the winter coat is a darker brown, and can include some grey. The underside remains white throughout the year.

Summer coat

Red squirrel in May
Red squirrel in May

Rusty red-brown fur in spring.

Winter coat

Red squirrel in November
Red squirrel in November

Fur that is closer to chocolate-brown in late autumn.

Habitat and diet

Red squirrels build spherical nests, called dreys, high up in the branches, from twigs, moss, leaves, and grass.

They are active during the day, especially in the early morning and late afternoon. They spend much of their time looking for food - the seeds from pine cones, other seeds, young shoots, fruit, berries, flowers, fungi, and bark and lichen (Britain's Mammals).

Red squirrels cache food in holes in trees, or just below the surface of the ground. Cheek glands enable them to scent-mark food they bury, giving them a better chance of finding it again.

Predators and threats

Stoat, Studley Royal
Stoat...or is it a weasel?

Predators include pine marten, wildcats, stoats, owls, goshawk, buzzards, and foxes. Among the non-natural threats to squirrels are dogs and cats, vehicles, and destruction of habitat.

The pox virus carried by grey squirrels (see 'distribution' above) is another major threat to red squirrels.

Red squirrels: life cycle

Red squirrels mate in late winter (February), and a litter of one to six kits is born after a gestation period of 38/39 days (Wikipedia). There can be a second litter (May to July). The mother looks after the kits, and they suckle for 8 to 10 weeks.

If a squirrel survives its first winter, it will typically live for 3 years (Wikipedia), but some reach the age of seven.

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