The red squirrel is a species of tree squirrel that can be found throughout Europe and Asia, as west as Britain and as far east as China. Also known as the Eurasian red squirrel its latin name is Sciurus vulgaris.
However, the red squirrel’s future in Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe is becoming uncertain. The cause of this decline has been the introduction of the American grey squirrel which expanded its range across the land. There are estimated to be fewer than 140,000 red squirrels left in Britain, with over 2.5 million greys.
History and fairy tales
The first signs of the red squirrel or Eurasian red squirrel appeared at the end of the last ice age, almost 10,000 years ago, when the land bridge between Britain and Europe was starting to disappear.
In middle ages, laws governed the way people dressed to define social status. Silk, satin, gold or silver cloth, lace, taffeta and furs were only to be worn by knights, their ladies and all those who ranked above them. Anybody who broke these laws could be fined, imprisoned or, if the culprit was from the lower classes, they could be put to death. Among the furs restricted to royalty and the nobility was vair. Vair is the name of red squirrel skin and was one of the two heraldic furs. If a woman was royalty or a very noble lady, she might have worn slippers made of vair.
The French poet Charles Perrault created the original story of Cinderella in 1697. In his version, Prince Charming knew that Cinderella was of equal rank to him, because the slipper she left behind was made of vair. It is believed that vair was miss-interpreted as the French word for glass - ‘verre’ - when the story was translated into English in 1792. Thereafter Cinderella’s squirrel skin slipper became glass.
Today’s level of decline in red squirrel numbers is not the first or the worst experienced in Scotland. Records from the 15th and 16th centuries indicate that red squirrel numbers dropped in Scotland and Wales and by the 18th century the red squirrel had virtually become extinct in Scotland. This was due to deforestation, the need for wood in industry, agriculture and war. Large areas of woodland which provided the red squirrel habitat were cut down.
However, in the 19th century, there was a drive to replace the trees that had been lost and by the start of the 20th century, there was a thriving population of red squirrels across Britain. The population grew so much that in some places it became a pest and between 1903 and 1933 the Highland Squirrel Club recorded the destruction of 82,000 red squirrels.
As the 20th century progressed, the red squirrel numbers plummeted to very low levels, not helped by further tree clearances during both world wars but also by the spread of the American grey squirrel and outbreaks of two fatal diseases – Coccidiosis and Parapox virus.
Squirrel homes and family life
Red squirrels live in dreys, these are large nests they often build in the forks of tree trunks. Generally, they are quite solitary and only come together to mate. However, related squirrels will share dreys to keep warm during cold winter months.
Reds will travel far, especially when looking for mates, while in Pinmore and Pinwherry you should watch for courtship displays in the trees.
Generally born in spring, females tend to produce 2-3 young, which are called kittens. Litters can be up to 6, and if the conditions are right they can reproduce a second time in the summer. It only takes 45-48 days after mating before the red squirrel has their litter. Females bring up the young and are very territorial over their brood.
Between 20 and 50 per cent of kittens, survive to adulthood. Young reds are weaned off their mother's milk and become independent after about 10 - 12 weeks.
The main staple of the Red squirrel’s diet are seed, preferably pine cones, but also larch and spruce. In addition, they are known to eat fungi, buds, shoots, flowers, bark and sometimes birds' eggs or insects in the summer. They can choose between good and bad nuts by holding them in their paws, then shaking them to determine the size of the nut inside.
Reds do not hibernate; they store fungi in trees to eat over the winter months. Like many animals when food is plentiful, they put on weight to help them through the winter. This is important for breeding females, so that they are in good condition for producing young.
The main threats to the survival of the reds are the increasing number of grey squirrels, disease, predators and road traffic.
The main predators of red squirrels are birds of prey, such as goshawks and pine marten. In some urban areas, domestic cats are also a threat when squirrels go into gardens to feed.
However, the biggest problem for the red squirrels survival in Scotland is the grey squirrel. Greys can feed more efficiently in broadleaved woodland and can survive at densities of up to 8 per hectare compared with the Red that can only survive in a density of 1 per hectare. However, it can be as low as 0.1 per hectare in coniferous woodland.
The larger grey squirrel is able to out-compete reds for food as well as habitat, and also carries the squirrelpox virus. This virus is lethal to reds and does not harm greys. Without urgent action, the 120,000 red squirrels that remain in Scotland may disappear within a lifespan.
Ayrshire Red Squirrel Group
The Ayrshire Red Squirrel Group is one of many groups and organisations across the UK trying to help conserve the red squirrels. Established in 2002, the group has secured funds to deliver a red squirrel conservation project in the Carrick area of South Ayrshire. The programme will complement an existing Carrick Invasive Species project run by the Ayrshire Rivers Trust, which is targeting invasive non-native plants in the region.
Red squirrels usually have russet red fur, although coat colour can vary with some reds appearing very grey (and some grey squirrels can have red fur down their backs and on their feet). They are small with ear tuffs - large tuffs in winter - while grey squirrels are stockier and rounder.
Red squirrels are very elusive and spend much of their time in the tree canopy, so make sure to keep your eyes on the trees when roaming Pinmore and Pinwherry.
You might spot signs such as large dreys in trees, scratch marks on bark, and chewed pine cones that look like chewed apple cores. Alternatively, listen out for the 'chuk chuk' noise. This is a vocalisation along with foot tapping the red squirrels use when they are angry or unhappy.