The favourite habitat of the red squirrel is a large, mature Scots Pine wood but they will also live in deciduous or mixed conifer woodlands. Their light weight and agility enables them to reach the thinnest branches at the tops of trees. They use their tails for balance, and double-jointed ankles and surprisingly long claws help them to hold on when running up and down tree trunks. Red squirrels can swim and hang upside down if they want to. If they are disturbed, they will often ‘freeze’ for 5 to 10 minutes, pressing themselves against the trunk of the tree until they think it is safe to move again.
Red squirrels are active for much of the day, often from before dawn until dusk, pausing only for a midday rest.
Red squirrels eat a variety of different foods throughout the year and are well adapted to living and foraging in woodlands on a diet consisting of tree seeds, nuts, berries, fungi, buds, shoots, flowers, bark, lichen and insects in summer. They have also been seen eating apples and plums at Fowberry. Squirrels hold food in their forepaws – they are either left or right-handed. Their favourite food is pine nuts, found in pine cones. They bite the scales off the cones to get at the seeds and the ground under a favourite feeding branch may be littered with chewed cones, scales and broken nutshells. Squirrels can even tell good nuts from rotten ones by weighing them and shaking them in their paws. If the nut
rattles, the kernel is likely to be small and shriveled, and not worth eating.
In the autumn, squirrels can be seen gathering and storing caches of nuts and cones ready for the winter. At this time they eat as much as they can to put on fat reserves for winter (they put on about 12 per cent of their body weight in autumn, whereas a grey squirrel can put on as much as 25 per cent). So the autumn seed harvest is extremely important, both for survival through the winter months, and to ensure breeding success the following spring.
Red Squirrels do not hibernate, but continue to forage for food throughout the winter, although they may not emerge from the shelter of their drey in very cold or wet weather.