Frequently Asked Questions about Red Squirrels

Scotland’s woodlands hold many mysteries, and the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is one of its most elusive and cherished inhabitants.

These remarkable little acrobats with tufted ears and vibrant fur have captivated the hearts of wildlife enthusiasts. Not just because of their vital role in sustaining ecosystems, but their concerning decline across the UK which has led to their classification as ‘near threatened’.

Prepare to be charmed by playful secrets and quirky characters, as we delve into the world of red squirrels.

Photography by Highland Safari Ranger George

Why are red squirrels important?

They’re considered the guardians of Scotland's Woodlands. The presence of red squirrels suggests a healthy habitat for these reasons:

- Seed Dispersal: By burying their cached nuts, they inadvertently help in the regeneration of Scotland’s woodlands, particularly Scots Pine crucial to our ecology. In other words, they’re skilled tree planters.
- Species Indicator: A thriving red squirrel population is a positive indicator of a biodiverse woodland and robust ecosystem. Nature’s tiny keepers!

Are red squirrels rare in Scotland?

No, they’re not rare in Scotland; however, their population has declined significantly due to many reasons, including competition with their cousins - the invasive grey squirrel.

The highly adaptable (and slightly more adventurous) grey squirrel gets a lot of bad press about the red’s decline, but it’s not entirely their fault, and here’s why:

- Red squirrels were hunted right up until 1927 for their beautiful coats, and surprisingly still are in other parts of Europe.
- The erosion of the red squirrels’ preferred habitat by man is partly to blame. The grey squirrel can survive living amongst other squirrels, while the red squirrel struggles. They need their own space.
- When red squirrels are under the pressure of challenging environments or food scarcity, they don’t breed as much.
- Unfortunately, the grey squirrel carries the squirrel Parapox virus and whilst it doesn’t seem to harm the greys, it kills the reds. Between 1900 and 1920 (just a few decades after the arrival of the greys in this country), the red squirrels were almost wiped out by the virus.

Thanks to major conservation efforts, you can still spot these resilient little creatures in many parts of the country.

Are red squirrels protected in Scotland?

Yes, they are under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 in Scotland.

It’s an offense to intentionally kill, injure, or capture a red squirrel, as well as damage, destroy, or obstruct their shelter. The aim is to conserve and protect the native population for many generations to come.

Where is the best place to see red squirrels in Scotland?

A good place to start is in woodlands and forests. Previously they roamed free, but nowadays they inhabit smaller areas. They are very timid, so if you see one, consider yourself exceptionally lucky!

Some of the best locations to spot them are:

- Cairngorms National Park: An excellent place to encounter red squirrels
- Abernethy Forest: A squirrel haven, part of the RSPB's Abernethy reserve
- Tentsmuir Forest: Located in Fife, offers a glimpse of squirrels amid coastal woodlands
- Isle of Arran: Home to a population of red squirrels with great viewing opportunities

The scoop on red squirrels - the facts

Smaller than their grey cousins, the red squirrel is approximately 8–9 inches long with a tail of about 6–8 inches. As their name suggests, they have a distinctive red coat, and their tufty ears get even more tufted in the winter. Here are a few more intriguing facts about these curious creatures:

- Native Residents: Red squirrels are native to the UK and have existed for thousands of years.
- Diverse Diet: They love to eat nuts, seeds, berries, fungi, and even insects, and they’re especially fond of Scots pine cones, which house their coveted pine nuts.
- Sketchy Memory: Red squirrels have a distinct lack of memory, which doesn’t bode well during the winter months as they rely on their memory to find their stashes of winter food and reserves. Not great for survival!
- Breeding Habits: Breeding typically occurs in late winter. The average litter, also known as ‘kittens’ is between three to six, born blind and hairless.
- Life expectancy: Their survival in the wild is limited to just 3 years (as compared to 7 to 10 years in captivity).
- Conservation Status: There are approximately only 140,000 red squirrels in the UK compared to 2.5 million grey squirrels. Hence their protected status.

Photography by Highland Safari Ranger George

Fun facts about red squirrels

Revered for their acrobatic prowess, they gracefully leap between trees, from branch to branch in search of food. They can even rotate their hind feet 180 degrees to climb down trees headfirst. As well as a head for heights, here’s a few other interesting facts:

- Nifty Nests: They build elaborate nests called "dreys" in the treetops, constructed from twigs, leaves, and moss that provide insulation and protection from predators.
- Molt Magic: Every year they undergo two molting periods to adapt to seasonal changes. In the winter, their ear tufts and tails become bushier for added warmth. Got to keep cosy!
- Tell Tale Signs: Look out for scratch marks on tree barks, or the remnants of pinecones which may look a bit like an apple core once the seeds have been stripped off.
- Aquatic skills: Red squirrels prefer to be up in the tree canopy, but they can swim, should they ever need to.

Do red and grey squirrels interbreed?

No, they are an entirely different species. As mentioned already the grey’s are considered a serious threat to the red’s existence.

What time of year are red squirrels most active?

Red squirrels are active throughout the year. Their behaviour varies with the seasons, depending on weather conditions and food availability. They tend to be most active during late winter, with the excitement of mating season in the air and the looming task of securing and defending their territories.

There is no doubt red squirrels have become symbols of resilience, adaptability, and untamed spirit, reflecting the very same essence of Scotland's woodlands.

At Highland Safaris we are exceptionally lucky to be surrounded by woodland that the Red Squirrel choses to call home! They are often spotted on our safaris, with sightings all year round. Why not join us on a Mini Safari or Mountain Safari and ask your Safari Ranger all about our cherished neighbour!

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