Wildlife Act 1976 / 2000
Bern Convention Appendix III
Key Identification Features
As the name suggests red squirrels have furry coats of a reddish brown with a darker tint on the back, in winter this coat is moulted to produce a warmer chocolate brown and grey colouration with the fur surrounding their ears becoming more erect in appearance during their second moult which easily distinguishes them from the grey squirrel species. They are not a very vocal species but will make chattering calls and stamp or flick their tails to give a distinctive chucking sound on wood and ground surfaces. They have excellent eyesight with a wide angle of vision and a sharp focus which allows for rapid movement within the tree canopy while foraging. Adults can grow up to 25cm in length with a long bushy tail equal to the length of the head and body combined. Adult male and female red squirrels are similar in size weighing up to 400 grams each but can vary in weight by up to 10 % at certain times of the year depending on the seasonal availability of food. The fore feet leave a four toed footprint while the larger hind feet have five toes and measure up to 6cm in length. The red squirrel is smaller in size and build to the grey squirrel but is more agile in the tree canopy as a result. Squirrels use their large bushy tails as a balance aid while climbing making them perhaps the most agile mammal in Ireland.
The red squirrel needs a medium to large concentration of trees in order to establish a habitat. They prefer coniferous forests but can create a habitat in mixed deciduous and coniferous woodlands, large gardens and parks, which provide enough of their food source which is mainly composed of seeds. Red squirrels will build nests composed of dried grasses and moss for lining and an outer layer of twigs attached to the main trunk of any tree species including scots pine, spruce and fir in Irish woodlands. It has been estimated that an individual red squirrel’s area requirements for a habitat are in the order of three to fifty hectares depending on the forest type used. An individual squirrel may make use of several different nets within tree branches known as dreys or use the hollows of older tree trunks and larger branches.
Food and Feeding Habits
Red squirrels are largely vegetarian feeding on a wide selection of fruits, seeds and berries which may be available in a forest. In particular they will consume large daily quantities of pine and spruce seeds, acorns, berries, fungi, tree sap and bark depending on their seasonal availability, as they need to fuel their high
metabolic rates they must consume up to 5% of their body weight each day in food. They forage all night in summer while restricting feeding periods until the early morning in late autumn and in winter. Red squirrels will bury collected nuts and seeds when they are plentiful in the autumn in numerous hoards which are shallow pits dug in soft ground in case the coming winter is excessively cold. Red squirrels do not hibernate but can remain in their nests for several days if the weather conditions are bad, making only quick trips to a nearby hoard can sustain a red squirrel for up to three months. They spend most of their active periods in the tree canopy while Ireland’s other squirrel species the grey squirrel stay foraging at ground level for much of the time.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Red squirrels can produce two litters in a year if food is abundant, but more usually in Ireland breeding females produce one litter with an average of three young per litter. The breeding season can run from mild Decembers through to the early autumn with a peak from the January to March period. Only the larger heavier females will breed due to them usually being established within a good quality habitat with a supply of seasonal nuts. During the breeding season males will frequently fight for the right to mate with receptive females. Dominant males will chase females through the canopy before mating takes place. The young when born are furless and blind after a gestation period of around 40 days. They generally weigh between 10 and 15 grams and need to be weaned for up to ten weeks before becoming independent. If a female gives birth to a second litter in a season then this liter will remain with the mother in the nest for longer as winter will be setting in by this time. Unlike rabbits and other rodent species in Ireland the female will not become pregnant until the first litter produced has been fully weaned. On average Irish red squirrels live up to 3 years in the wild but females generally out live males and can reach up to 6 years of age.
It is believed that the red squirrel first originated in North America before spreading to Asia and Europe while certain sections of these land masses were still connected. They can now be found throughout Europe and eastward to Japan although populations in different countries will vary in colour from black to red and to brown. This squirrel species is currently absent from the Mediterranean islands and Iceland. They seem to have been present in Ireland by prehistoric times before the arrival of the ice age made them extinct in this country, they returned after the retreating glaciers and have also been brought to Ireland and released in large numbers over several periods up until the 19th century. Currently they can be found in any county which supports open forest areas, large parks or connected wooded gardens. Population densities are low in Ireland although they may be concentrated in isolated wooded areas especially in the south and east while scarce in the north and along the western seaboard. In the midlands they have been largely out competed for habitats by the grey squirrel, especially in mixed and broadleaf woodlands.
Red squirrel’s habit of hoarding stores of nuts and seeds are important to the ecosystem of forests as this activity spreads tree seeds over large areas at the vital time of Autumn. Red squirrels are an important prey species of the pine martin, fox and predatory birds. In Ireland as in other countries the red squirrel will usually disappear from an area when the grey squirrel species begin to use it as a habitat, as the grey squirrel has the competitive advantage of remaining longer at ground level to forage, the red squirrel’s hoards can be found by the greys and their winter food source can be removed resulting in starvation. British studies show that in England and Wales the grey squirrel species can adapt more easily to an ecosystem within mixed woodland areas while red squirrels fair better in coniferous woodland types only. The recent increase in the numbers of domestic cats and dogs has increased the mortality rate of red squirrels each year, death by road accidents is also on the increase. The expansion of forested areas in Ireland in the past three decades has increased the number and range of the red squirrel but isolated forests of scots pine can become damaged if a population increase occurs over a short period of time resulting in them being regarded as a pest species in some areas. The importance of this native squirrel species however is reflected in its protection under Irish legislation and international conventions.