Red Squirrels – The Facts

Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) are a native species to the UK but over the years they have become harder to find. They now live in a few small pockets of the UK, forced out by habitat changes and the dominance of the grey squirrel. Many encounters are fleeting as they dart through a woodland or scamper along a stone wall, but it is possible to spend time with them and photograph them.

Key Facts About Red Squirrels

  • Live in coniferous forests and deciduous woods in the UK, Europe, Russia through to Mongolia and China
  • It estimated that there are about 140,000 red squirrels in the UK but in England this is as few as 15,000. Wales and Northern Ireland have strong populations.
  • They are arboreal rodents (live in trees) and build large nests known as dreys.
  • They have four fingers and five toes and show signs of having a dominant hand!
  • They are most active in the morning and evening
  • Red squirrels don’t hibernate but stash food through the summer and autumn to return to during the winter months

Red Squirrel Habitat and Where to Find them

Red squirrels live in coniferous forests (forests made up mainly of trees with needles and cones) and deciduous woods (woodlands that have trees that lose their leaves in autumn) in Europe and northern Asia. Their range extends from the UK, Ireland and western Europe to Russia, Mongolia, and northwest China.

Numbers in the UK have fallen dramatically since grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) were introduced in the 1870s as an ornamental species from North America.

Since the 1870’s the UK population of reds has dropped from around 3.5 million to between 120,000 to 160,000 individuals. The population in England is thought to be as low as 15,000. These are rough estimates and vary depending on the source you read!

Despite their reduction in numbers, in the UK they can be found in  Scotland, Northumberland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Lake District as well as on islands such as Brownsea.

Red squirrels are very elusive and don’t often venture into areas where human interaction will occur. Look out for large dreys in the trees, scratch marks on bark and pine cones chewed like apple cores. They have a distinctive ‘chuk chuk’ noise which can help locate them in a woodland.

Why Are Red Squirrels Endangered?

The red squirrel is officially classed as Near Threatened in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but in Scotland their numbers mean that they are common. There are a number of conservation projects in place to increase numbers, stop the encroachment of grey squirrels and preserve their habitat.

The main cause behind their decline is the introduction of grey squirrels from America. There are three main reasons why greys are a threat.

  • Grey squirrels carry a virus (from the parapoxvirus genus), which does not appear to affect their health but often kills red squirrels.
  • Grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are more likely to eat green acorns which means that they have cleared an area before the red squirrels get a chance. Red squirrels favour the green acorns because they are less able to digest the polyphenols in mature acorns.
  • When red squirrels become stressed they are less likely to breed.
  • Loss of woodland and their favoured habitat.
  • Road traffic and predators play a part but are not the main causes.

What is the difference between a red squirrel and a grey squirrel?

Red squirrels have red to russet fur, ear tufts and long, fluffy tails. In contrast grey squirrels are grey with hints of brown, thin fluffy tails and ears without tufts.

Red squirrels are also much more delicate than the larger grey squirrels and far more elusive spending time hidden in the tree canopy. Grey squirrels are bold and not always afraid of human interaction.

red squirrel portrait
grey squirrel in tree

Diet

Pine and spruce cones make up the vast part of the squirrels diet. They also enjoy seeds from larch and spruce, hazelnuts, green acorns, fungus and bark. If they see the opportunity they will also take birds eggs and young birds.

Their diet plays a vital role in reforestation as they aid in the dispersal of seeds. Their stashing tendencies can also help with reforestation as buried acorns and hazelnuts that are forgotten can become saplings.

The summer and autumn stashing of food is essential to support them over the winter months. This is incredibly important fo the females to ensure they are in good condition for nursing young in the spring.

When do Red Squirrels Have Young?

The first litter for red squirrels arrive between February and April with a second litter sometimes appearing in May to June. They usually have 2-3 young called kittens. These arrive 45-48 days after mating. The mothers care for them and they wean after 10-days when their teeth appear, however some will stay with the mother for their first winter. Only about 35% of red squirrel kittens survive into adulthood.

The red squirrels are solitary animals living alone. However in the spring their become more sociable and will court each other high in the trees. Whilst they live alone they will interact and are willing to be around other squirrels.

red squirrel by reflection pool
red squirrel ambush

Key Places to find Red Squirrels in the UK

Photographing Red Squirrels

Without a hide and patience you will probably not get any photographs of red squirrels. They are very timid and will remain hidden. However there are a number of places around the UK with red squirrel hides or those that are more accustomed to human presence. These are the perfect place to start photographing these small mammals. They will have logs in strategic positions so you can get beautiful portraits as well as action shots of the squirrels jumping. The squirrels are wild and depending on the weather, temperature and time of day you may see one or you may see ten. It is really pot luck.

Camera

In the right location you can photograph red squirrels with any camera with a zoom lens. They will not come close enough for a phone shot unless they are very tame. With any camera make sure you set it to burst mode to enable multiple shots to be taken as a moving squirrel is fast moving object!

Composition

Always look at the background for the planned location. Are there any bright light areas behind the squirrel that will distract the person looking at the photograph, is there an annoying twig in the foreground? Make sure that the area around your squirrel is ‘clean’ and free of distractions.

Observation

Take time to observe the squirrels before starting to take photographs. They will have patterns and routines. They will favour a stash location and follow a path through the woodland each time. Some will sit on a specific log before coming closer which can provide a perfect opportunity for a photograph.

Planning

Think about the type of photograph you want before you start taking any photographs. There are so many options. Portraits, action shots with them feeding, reflection pools work well at commercial hides and the jumping shot as they leap from a log or branch. This will determine whether you use a tripod and focus on one spot (jumping squirrel) or get rid of your tripod and wait and see where the squirrel appears for a portrait.

Settings

You will also need to think about shutter speed. Most encounters with red squirrels occur in woodlands where the light is low. If you want to get a sharp image of squirrel activity then you may need to increase your ISO or aperture to allow more light in and still keep the image sharp.

Feeders

When planning your photography it is worth investigating the set up of the hide or the location. Many hides will bait the squirrels using hazelnuts. Done correctly and maintained throughout the year I believe this is fine. It is no different to the bird feeders in your garden and in many locations the squirrels are just taking advantage of the food provided for the birds. Squirrels will naturally forage and find food so the hazelnuts scattered around the hide will not alter their behaviour or natural diet. Don’t be surprised if there are feeders around and strategically positioned hazelnut holders.

Red Squirrel Photographs For Inspiration

red squirrel eating hazelnut
backlit red squirrel
red squirrel on a tree
jumping red squirrel
red squirrel in a tree
red squirrel in the snow
red squirrel in profile
red squirrel in snow
red squirrel on a snowy branch

Find Out More About Wildlife in the Cairngorm Mountains