I’m normally an advocate for species lacking in media attention. The small things that people ignore; or the slimy things that some find scary. This week however, I happened to spend an afternoon with the charismatic poster species for Scottish conservation – the red squirrel. And yes I have to admit…they were very cute.
Up until a few years ago, only a small population of red squirrels could still be found in Aberdeen City. It’s hard to imagine as I sit on the moss laden floor of a small area of suburban woodland. Red tufted ears seem to pop up from every tree stump before scampering across to the feeders to pinch a peanut. Since work began to remove grey squirrels from the area, the reds have thrived and expanded well beyond this small patch of woodland. They now turn up in all sorts of places, including built-up housing estates close to the city centre.
Grey squirrels are a non native species, introduced to the UK in the 19th century from North America. They are larger and more robust than reds, meaning they can compete more successfully for food and habitat. Removing grey squirrels from a habitat is the best way to help protect red populations. Control of greys is done as humanely as possible using live capture traps which are checked twice a day. If you see either a red or grey squirrel, please submit your sighting to Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels
Interestingly, a study in Ireland has recognised that high populations of pine marten help to recover red squirrel populations. Native reds, having co-evolved with martens, are light and nimble among the tree branches. Unlike the heavier, less agile greys who make easy pickings for hungry pine martens. This offers a natural method for eradicating greys – after all, culling costs cash.
Red squirrels are usually right handed and they knaw on pine cones from the base upwards (as seen in the photograph below). Being arboreal creatures they can be difficult to spot, but you can often find piles of half eaten pine cones at the bottom of trees. Red squirrels need to eat around 125 scots pine cones every day – this grinds down their teeth which grow continuously.
I saw at least four different individuals on my visit – this is because the red squirrel officer for Aberdeenshire regularly tops up the feeders in Hazlehead wood. The squirrels have become used to people and mostly go about their business unfazed. Beneath the lids of the feeders sticky pads are placed to catch the hairs of visiting squirrels. By examining the hairs under a microscope, the officers can tell whether reds or greys (or pine martens!) have been using the feeders.
It’s not difficult to see why red squirrels have earned their place as one of Scotland’s iconic species. Their character and endearing looks certainly add to their charm. I do hope however, that their protection is as much about rewilding the landscape as it is about aesthetics. Now that i’ve discovered this spot I’ll definitely be back to enjoy their antics again soon.