If you’ve ever seen a red squirrel in the wild then you’re extremely lucky. Less than 5 per cent of Brits have spotted the creature in our outdoor spaces.
In fact, there are less than 40,000 of them in England – red squirrels, that is – with Scotland holding fast to 75 per cent of the remaining population.
But just because they’re rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere, that doesn’t mean we can’t all do more to encourage their population.
The Mammal Society placed red squirrels on the Red List of Britain’s endangered mammals, with the cute critters facing increasing pressure from habitat loss, competition for food with non-native grey squirrels and the Squirrelpox virus, which can be harmless when carried by greys but fatal when passed to reds.
On January 21, it’s Squirrel Appreciation Day 2021, a time for all Brits go a little bit further to protect the rarely-spotted species.
The last remaining locations on England that red squirrels can be seen are the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island in the south, the Lake District and Northumberland in the north and Formby on the Merseyside coast.
Wildlife lovers are hoping that, in time, the population could grow and spread, so that more of us have a chance of spotting the mammals in our gardens.
Here’s what you can do to help the plight of the red squirrel.
What to feed them?
Should you be lucky enough to have a red squirrel visit your garden, you can leave some choice food items to supplement their diet.
The most suitable foods for red squirrels are:
UK garden wildlife products and supply company Ark Wildlife are the only supplier of red squirrel food in the UK and provide it to charities to support them in protecting the species.
Director of Ark Wildlife and wildlife expert Sean McMenemy, says: “We’ve seen ongoing demand for red squirrel food from charities across the UK, and many of our customers are keen to help red squirrels wherever possible. It’s encouraging to see this level of concern from the public, charities and action groups.
“When last surveyed, only 5 per cent of people in Britain had ever seen a red squirrel in their garden. This is a native mammal that was once prevalent right across the country, and the figure is likely to be even lower today.
“If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the areas where red squirrels are still around, supporting them with red squirrel food can go a long way to supplementing their diet – but remember you’re not replacing it. Red squirrels should always be encouraged to forage for food.”
Plant trees, shrubs, and natural food sources
How can you best increase your chances of seeing the wild mammal when visiting conservation areas? Rachael Cripps, red squirrel project officer at The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside, says: “If people have them visiting their garden, ensure feed is only supplementary. Provide good variety and clean feeders regularly.”
Placing feeding stations relatively high up, such as a few feet into a tree or on a high wall, ensures that squirrels are less at risk from cats. Also make sure that they don’t have to cross open ground to get to them.
Go red squirrel spotting and support local sanctuaries
With travel continuing to be more limited in the UK, there’s a surge of interest in spotting the increasingly rare native species on home shores.
Many of the sites across the north are within easy driving distance of Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle, while those living in London and the south need to travel a little further with the closest being the Isle of Wight or Dorset.
Rachael Cripps advises: “When out in the woods, take the time to sit and listen. When you are quiet you will often hear a squirrel before you see it – running up a tree trunk, munching on pine cone, the thud of eaten pine cone cores falling from the canopy or chattering loudly at your presence.
“Report sightings of reds and greys to your local Red Squirrel Group or become a volunteer. There are also plenty of opportunities from surveying to fundraising that will help.”
Be aware of grey squirrels
If you spot a red squirrel, before feeding them it’s worth being aware of any grey squirrels in the vicinity, Sean McMenemy advises. Putting food out if there are grey squirrels around risks putting the two species into contact, meaning red squirrels could be exposed to Squirrelpox.
Equally, don’t try to attract red squirrels to your garden from nearby if access is impeded, such as having to cross a busy road, as this also puts them in danger.
Support wildlife and red squirrel charities
Heinz Traut, project manager at Red Squirrels Northern England, highlights the importance of the conservation community and volunteers in protecting red squirrels.
”The reason that we have not seen the drastic historic decline of red squirrel range in the north of England, as in the rest of the country, is only thanks to the dedicated effort of the collective conservation community – 85 per cent of which are volunteer groups,” said Heinz.
“So it requires people to take action. This could be helping in a variety of different ways, in the woods, at your desk or in the community that you live in.”
Charities to support the UKs Red Squirrel populations include:
Wildlife Trusts across the UK, including Dorset, South and West Wales, and Scotland are also offering red squirrel adoption packs, which make great gifts for wildlife lovers.