Red Squirrels are smallish creatures, with reddish fur and a long bushy tail. Their special features or adaptations allow them to successfully find shelter and food in woodlands like Balloch Wood.
The bushy tail is perhaps the most obvious feature, essential for balance and communication and is often held up and over the squirrel’s back. In fact, the Latin name for the red squirrel is Sciurus vulgaris which originates from the Greek word ‘skiouros’ meaning ‘shade tail’.
Young red squirrels are called kittens, and are born blind and hairless. They are born in nests called dreys in spring and summer and need to eat well so that they are fit and well for the winter months.
Squirrels get up at dawn to spend the daylight hours foraging for food, making use of the many types of food which the forest has to offer, from tree bark and fungi in winter to insects and tree sap in summer.
They are well known for hoarding food to prepare for the winter months when supplies are low. These food reserves of tree seeds and nuts are buried in autumn and utilised throughout the winter and spring.
In the summer months squirrels often have a snooze around mid-day inside their drey which is also a secure and safe place for overnight rest. That means squirrel spotting in the middle of a hot sunny summers’ day is often unrewarded!
Unlike some other mammals, squirrels don’t hibernate and remain active throughout the winter. One of the best times to see squirrels is during the months of January and February when their courtship chases take place and the trees are without leaves making squirrels easy to spot!
Yet red squirrels are an endangered species. Although they are the only native species of squirrel in the UK, they are not the only species resident here. Grey squirrels from North America were brought here over 100 years ago and were released into parks and gardens across the country.
Due to their ability to feed more efficiently in broad leaved and mixed woodlands they have pushed red squirrels out of many woodlands in England, Wales and central Scotland and now outnumber them by almost twenty to one. This, combined with disease and tree felling, has led to a dramatic drop in red squirrel numbers over the last 50 years.
Fortunately grey squirrels find it fairly difficult to survive in large conifer forests where large seeded broadleaved trees like beech and oak are minimal – a climate in which red squirrels thrive.
Greys, being almost twice the size of red squirrels, need to spend much more time than reds foraging for food in order to reach their daily energy requirements.
Conifer cones have very small seeds and a fraction of the energy of an acorn, a bit like comparing a chocolate button to a mars bar! For this reason efforts to conserve the red squirrel are focussed on the large spruce dominated conifer plantations which are so common in this part of the world, for example the Galloway Forest Park managed by Forestry Commission Scotland.
With appropriate habitat management, these large forests could become important future refuges for the red squirrel as greys become more widespread.