Nature and Wildlife - Habitats and Species
The Red Squirrel
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Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) have lived in Britain since the end of the last Ice Age. Related to the red squirrel of Western Europe it is the only squirrel which is native to Britain. It is specially protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
The red squirrel was abundant at the start of this century, but since then its numbers have been falling. Disease, food shortage or loss of habitat may have contributed to its decline. In many parts of the country they have been replaced by the American grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Since its introduction in 1876, grey squirrels have spread into most broadleaved woodlands, parks and gardens.
Red squirrel numbers have declined dramatically in the last 50 years and they are now extinct in most southern counties. They are now found mainly in Scotland and the Lake District, with smaller populations in Wales, Norfolk and parts of northern England. The woodlands on the Sefton coast support thriving populations of red squirrel.
DESCRIPTION AND HABITATS
An adult red squirrel is about 22cm (8ms) long with a tail which is almost the same length. Their weight, dependent on food availability, is often between 200 - 400g.
Restricted mainly to pine woodlands their main food is conifer seeds, but tree seeds such as hazel as well as fungi, berries, tree sap and even bird eggs may also be eaten. Red squirrels often experience periods of food shortages during June and July. Squirrels are well known for their habit of burying surplus food. Nuts are buried in carefully selected places or, temporarily near where they were found.
Squirrels' nests, or dreys, are built in the fork of a tree, close to the tree trunk. A squirrel may use several dreys and share them with other squirrels. Female squirrel may build a large nest for their babies and will not allow other squirrels near it until they are weaned.
A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A RED SQUIRREL
Breeding usually begins in January and may continue through the summer. Mating chases occur and often involve squirrels making spectacular leaps through the tree canopy and spiralling up and down tree trunks. Females usually have one litter in a year, of 3 - 8 young. Juveniles are weaned at around 8 weeks, but usually do not breed until they are 1 year old.
In the autumn the red squirrel spends a lot of time feeding and stocking up for winter. The squirrels do not hibernate over the winter, and can still be seen searching for food and their buried larder.
Most deaths in a red squirrel population are accounted for by juveniles under the age of 1 year. However, once past its first year a squirrel can live for upto 4 or 5 years. For most squirrels starvation is the main threat, although in woodlands close to urban areas road casualties are frequent.
The most serious threats to red squirrels has been the destruction of their habitat and invasion by grey squirrels. Historically, red squirrel populations have fluctuated widely, often disappearing from areas and recolonising at a later date. However, red squirrels have not moved back into areas where they became extinct in the late 1920s and their place has been taken by the American grey squirrel.
Ideally red squirrel habitats should have a diversity of tree species, with shrubs such as hazel included. Such variety provides a continuity of food sources and abundant autumn food.
The Scots and Corsican pine at Formby Point were originally planted between 1893 and 1921. They have provided an important food source for the red squirrel in the area. Much management work, including thinning and under planting is undertaken to aid the survival of the squirrel.
Within Merseyside the Lancashire Wildlife Trust have taken on a full time Conservation Officer with specific responsibility for red squirrel conservation.
The Sefton Coast Forest Plan has brought red squirrel conservation to the fore for all woodland managers.
The red squirrel is included with in the North Merseyside Biodiversity Action Plans
URBAN RED SQUIRRELS
Red squirrels are present in woodland and urban areas along the Sefton
coast from Crosby in the south to Southport in the north. A minimal
amount of knowledge exists about the ecology of urban red squirrels so
a research project was undertaken to bridge this gap by combining a red
squirrel census of Formby residents with the live-trapping and
radio-tracking of squirrels within a specific urban area.
For more detailed information visit the Ecology of Urban Red Squirrels in Formby, Merseyside website redsquirrels.hope.ac.uk This web site provides an overview of red squirrel ecology and
outlines the research that was undertaken in Formby, Merseyside to
better understand the ecology of urban red squirrels.