A few interesting facts about red and grey squirrels

Where can I see red squirrels in Cornwall?

The only place to see Red Squirrels in Cornwall at the moment is at Paradise Park in Hayle. The squirrels here are part of a captive breeding programme, which has provided young captive bred red squirrels for release where populations of grey squirrels allow, including the successful red squirrel project in Anglesey, where a cull of grey squirrels on the island has saved the native red squirrel population, which was down to a handful of individuals. Discounted tickets to Paradise Park are included in our membership package.

How do I tell the difference between a red and grey squirrel?

The main difference is size; red squirrels are about half the size of a grey squirrel, weighing approximately 250g instead of 500g. Red squirrels also have ear tufts, and their ears are elongated and pointy. Grey squirrel's ears are small and rounded, rather like a rat. The colour of a squirrel's coat is not a reliable guide to identification. Some grey squirrels can have coats that appear to be red - often down the sides - and some red squirrels have coats that look quite grey, especially in shaded forest areas.

How many red squirrels are there in the UK?

The red squirrel population in the UK stands at about 120,000 individuals. Of these 75% are in Scotland. By comparison there are estimated to be 3 to 5 million grey squirrels in the UK.

What do red and grey squirrels eat?

Red squirrels eat mainly tree seeds but in spring and early summer they also eat the buds, flowers and shoots of both deciduous and coniferous trees. Other foods include fruits, berries, caterpillars and fungi. Unlike grey squirrels, reds cannot digest seeds with high tannin content, such as acorns, which limits the food sources available for reds. Grey squirrels share food sources with reds however, unlike reds; grey squirrels can feed on seeds with high tannin content, such as acorns, thanks to differences in digestive physiology. As a result, more food sources are available to them and tend to put on 20% in body weight over the autumn, compared with 10% for reds. Grey squirrels also eat birds eggs, and research is being undertaken to establish whether the fall in songbird numbers in the UK could be related to the dense populations of grey squirrels in most English woods.

What habitat do red squirrels like?

Red squirrels are often associated with conifer forests. This is not because this is their favourite habitat, but because it is the only habitat where they have a slight competitive advantage over the grey squirrel. In fact, their preferred habitat is mixed deciduous woodland with occasional conifers, giving a wide range of food sources, from hazel nuts and sweet chestnuts to pine cones.

I'd like to plant some trees which would help a red squirrel population in the future, what's best to plant?

If you'd like something which will fruit quickly and not get too large then elder or hazel are best; both usually fruit within ten years of being planted. These also provide food for other small mammals (including dormice) and birds. If you'd prefer something larger, walnut or sweet chestnut are both stunning trees and once they start producing nuts provide an excellent food resource. If you only want to plant one or two trees it's particularly helpful to plant them in a run of hedging, as a large tree will make travelling along a hedge more appealing for a red squirrel.

Why can't red and grey squirrels co-habit?

Grey squirrels compete more successfully than red squirrels for food and habitat, they are larger and more robust, and can digest seeds with high tannin content, such as acorns, more efficiently. This means grey squirrels can access a more abundant food supply than red squirrels. As a result, the arrival of grey squirrels in an area occupied by red squirrels tends to cause reduced red squirrel breeding and survival rates leading to a gradual decline in their numbers. In addition, grey squirrels can also carry squirrelpox virus (SQPV), which causes severe clinical disease and mortality in red squirrels without causing any symptoms in the grey carriers. The presence of this disease in grey squirrels in England and Wales has caused the replacement of red squirrels by grey squirrels to happen 17 to 25 times faster than where the greys do not carry the disease. This is why the removal of grey squirrels from the proposed areas for red squirrel reintroductions is absolutely essential. Outbreaks of squirrel pox in red squirrel populations cause absolute devastation, for example, in 2009-2010 squirrel pox in the red squirrel population on Merseyside reduced the red squirrel population by approximately 90%.

Is it legal to kill grey squirrels, surely they are protected wildlife?

It is perfectly legal to kill grey squirrels, and has been since 1937 when the UK Government declared them to be an invasive non-native species. The Grey Squirrel Order of that year made it illegal to import, keep, provide veterinary support to, or release grey squirrels into the wild. Grey squirrels were further defined as a pest species by further government orders in the 1940s, due to their impact on forestry. Much more recently (2007), the UK Minister for Biodiversity declared the grey squirrel to be one of the three most destructive non-native species ever released into the UK. The main reason for this is that grey squirrels, and the disease they carry, are the main reason why red squirrels are on the edge of extinction in mainland England and Wales. As a pest species, it is legal to trap grey squirrels with humane, live catch traps and then kill them. Grey squirrel control is undertaken by trained operators, following an agreed set of guidelines.