With evidence to suggest that the grey squirrel is continuing to benefit from British woodlands at the expense of red squirrels, the future seems bleak for our native species. The main threat to the survival of the reds is the increasing number of grey squirrels, which also pass on disease (squirrel poxvirus) and road traffic.
The grey squirrel’s larger and more robust frame, together with better efficiency in digesting large seeds from broadleaved trees (such as acorns) gives them a competitive advantage over red squirrels in broadleaved and mixed woodland and it is now widespread in England and Wales.
Greys are able to feed on acorns, hazelnuts and other seeds before they are fully ripe, and gain more nutritional benefit from them than red squirrels. Grey squirrels are also thought to steal nuts and seeds from red squirrel winter stores. It is more adaptable than the red squirrel and lives happily in hedgerow trees, parks, gardens as well as large woods and forests. Greys can also feed more efficiently in broadleaved woodlands and can survive at densities of up to 8 per hectare.
The main predators of red squirrels are birds of prey, such as goshawks, sparrow hawks and buzzards, pine marten (in Scotland), foxes, rats, dogs and cats.
If we commit ourselves to the task of ensuring a future for red squirrels in Britain, there are positive steps, which can be taken.
You can help by monitoring and committing to REGULAR feeding of red squirrels using a specially designed feeding box, which is not accessible to birds.
Recommended foods for supplementary feeding include, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, peanuts in moderation, carrots and apples. (Of these, only carrots contain sufficient calcium to prevent calcium deficiency). A diet rich in peanuts and sunflower seeds has been linked to metabolic bone disease in red squirrels and it may therefore be wise to provide an extra source of calcium. This can either be provided in drinking water in t he form of a powder supplement (e.g. “Collo-Cal D” available from C-VET Ltd, Leyland, Lancs) or from a bone hung in a tree or a cuttlefish bone broken up and added to the squirrel mix. In the wild, squirrels can be seen chewing deer antlers – once they have been shed of course!
When a number of birds and squirrels are attracted to an area to feed, the risks of disease greatly increase. Dirty feeders and feeding areas can lead to fatal outbreaks of disease – droppings and uneaten food can contain nasties like Salmonella and Coccidiosis.
Keep Feeders Clean!
Best practice is to clean squirrel feeders thoroughly every two to three weeks, ensuring all organic deposits both inside and outside and grease from their coats on the lid is scrubbed with hot water and disinfectant; change the water regularly, rinse the feeders thoroughly after cleaning and allowing them to dry completely.
With a co-ordinated approach to red squirrel conservation across Britain, combining direct action with education, the red squirrel will remain a part of our natural heritage for future generations to admire.