The beautiful red squirrel is native to the British Isles and was once found across the length and breadth of the country but, due to the introduction of grey squirrels from America, the native reds have been completely wiped out from most of southern Britain. Conservation efforts are hoping to halt this decline and in some areas have even been successful in reversing it.
The biggest problem for the red squirrels comes from a disease known as 'squirrel pox', a disease which is fatal to red squirrels but harmless to greys. The grey squirrels carry this disease and where the two species come into contact red squirrels die out.
In southern Britain, red squirrels can now only be found at a handful of locations on islands where the greys haven’t been able to populate. Brownsea Island, the Isles of White and Anglesey are the best known. Further north, red squirrels are still found in Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland. There is also an isolated pocket in the pine plantations at Formby Dunes, Merseyside.
The population on Anglesey in Wales is an interesting one, as the island was invaded by grey squirrels which made it across the Menai Straits road bridge. In 1998 there were just 40 red squirrels left on the island and the population of greys had increased to about 3000. With the help of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust, the situation has been reversed, now there are 300 red squirrels.
It is usually straightforward to identify a red squirrel from a grey but mistakes are sometimes made because grey squirrels can have quite brown fur. Red squirrels are relatively small and usually have ear tufts and are usually reddish-brown all over. There are always exceptions and amongst red squirrels there are sometimes very dark individuals and occasionally some have a spot of white on the tail such as the one in the photograph.
For the time being, the type of squirrel we are likely to see in our gardens is determined entirely by where in the country we live but new red squirrel reintroductions are likely to go ahead in the coming years. For example there are plans afoot to try to reintroduce red squirrels to Cornwall, using the Lizard peninsula as a trial area.
For more about red squirrels in the UK and to find out what the Red Squirrel Survival Trust are doing to protect them, see: www.rsst.org.uk.