Why what we do is important
Red squirrels are the only squirrel native to the British Isles. They are disappearing from the mainland fast and are being replaced by the introduced American grey squirrel.
The Isle of Wight is an important stronghold as the Solent provides a barrier to grey squirrels. However a grey does find its way to the Island sometimes, so we need to be vigilant.
Reds versus greys
There are contingency plans for dealing with greys that arrive on the Isle of Wight.
Not only do grey squirrels outcompete reds for food and territory, they carry the deadly squirrelpox virus, which is fatal to the reds.
It is illegal to bring a grey squirrel into red squirrel territory. The penalty is two years imprisonment or £5,000 fine. It is also illegal to release a grey anywhere, once it is caught. Read more about how the greys impact on our native reds...
The Isle of Wight’s woodland can provide habitat for around 3,500 squirrels at their peak. Numbers can fluctuate wildly annually according to the success or failure of the autumn seed crop. They also fluctuate seasonally when young are born.
Red squirrels on the Island live mainly in broadleaved woodland - which is unique nowadays as greys dominate this habitat on the mainland. The Island is also free of deer, which nibble young shoots and retard regrowth of understorey trees.
What our red squirrels need:
Red squirrels not only need trees to live in and feed from but they are essentially an arboreal animal who would prefer to travel via trees rather than the ground. This means that 'corridors', or 'squirrel highways' are very important to them. Tree species preferred by red squirrels are: hazel, wild cherry, sweet chestnut, walnut, Scots pine, Corsican pine and beech. If you can, plant trees! If you have trees in your garden, value them rather than cut them down. Trees are essential to our life and wellbeing as well as many species of fauna.
• A grey squirrel free zone
The Isle of Wight is a nationally important stronghold for our fast disappearing native red squirrels as we do not have a fixed link to the mainland. The current thinking is that off-shore islands are the red squirrels best chance of survival in the UK, as long there are greys on mainland Britain.
• Support from humans
Many people feed squirrels in their garden, although they may cost a fortune to feed when they are at their hungriest in the spring and summer, red squirrels are considered well worth it! They are termed as 'time wasters' because they are charismatic to watch.
Also, we need to continually fight development which encroaches into woodland and overzealous forestry work. Although, it is I'm afraid, very much a case of some you win and some you lose!
Tips for successful squirrel spotting
Learn as much as you can about red squirrel behaviour
Peak activity times are dawn and dusk all year with a third peak in summer
They react to sound and movement, so stand still and keep quiet
Good places to look:
• Behind the railway exhibit at Fort Victoria, Yarmouth
• In and around Shanklin Chine and village
• Robin Hill, Downend
• The Garlic Farm, Newchurch
• Newport to Cowes cycletrack
Squirrels feed on different things over the year:
In the spring they can be seen nibbling shoots and buds, so look up into the trees.
Scots and Corsican pine cones ripen in early summer, so find these trees and look high up in the branches, that is where the squirrels will be
Around the end of July the hazelnuts ripen, so find a good hazel coppice with plenty of light, often on the edge of rides. Hazel will not fruit if there is not enough light
In the autumn, beech and sweet chestnut ripen, so look for these trees at peak activity times. Squirrels also like fungi
Late autumn and winter is when those caches that were buried in the autumn are being used. Caching is usually in the ground but sometimes in the trees as well
Look for red squirrel signs:
Dreys are built high up in the fork of a tree
Look for used cones or hazelnuts. Squirrel notch the top of the nut and split it in half. Look for half shells with a notched top. Cones are stripped of their spines to extract the seeds
Where gardens back onto woods, squirrels are often fed and can be spotted as they travel to and from the garden. Take care not to upset the garden owner!
Try to avoid peak dog walking times
Parks and cemeteries have red squirrels as well as woodland
Red and grey squirrel identification guide
Unlike the American grey squirrels, whose colouring is pretty uniform, the red squirrel’s colouring is quite diverse. They may be ginger, brown, red, grey or a mixture of these colours as shown in the first six photos.
This can lead to a problem with identification. as red squirrels can have grey coats!! Tricky! Light levels and the distance away the 'grey' is seen can also change perception.
Here are a few ways to 'spot the difference'.
Firstly, size matters! An adult grey is nearly twice the size of an adult red and an altogether chunkier animal. A young grey squirrel could be the size of an adult red of course. In the winter, reds have the iconic long eartufts, greys never have long eartufts. Reds lose their eartufts in the summer.
A grey coloured red squirrel doesn't usually have a brindled coat as a grey does. If you can get a close look at a greys coat, it has 3 colours in it, white, black and a brownish red. To make matters worse, when a grey moults, it can look red for a short time!
Looking at the tail is a good way to identify between species. A grey squirrel's tail has the three colours in it. The bulk of the tail is red/brown with a band of black around it and then a halo of white.
A red squirrel's tail – even those with a grey coat – does not have the distinctive banding as shown in the picture of the grey in the final photo below.