17th March 2017, by Stewart Smith and Mel Tonkin
Spring in southern Scotland is on the cusp of springing. Leaf buds bulge on trees, and daffodil bulbs are nudging each other, encouraging one to launch a shoot. Red Squirrels breed early in the year, and adult females can be pregnant as early as mid January. It is important for the females to gain the necessary body weight in the autumn and maintain it through the winter to be ready for breeding.
Males come into full breeding condition by December, and will often closely attend females as they go about their day well before the females come into season. From observations of grey squirrels in captivity, it is thought that this kind of close attendance, courtship and outright flirting by the males may be necessary to stimulate the female to begin her breeding cycle. When females come into season, they are thought to release a scent which is pleasant to the males. The male then attempts to get the female’s attention by approaching the the female's drey in the early morning, making "chucking" noises, clattering their claws on the tree limb and lashing his tail playfully once she emerges from the drey. She will usually groom thoroughly and then move off, with the male following.
If the female decides her personal space has been invaded, she may turn on the male, "chuck" at him and flick her tail angrily. Or she may lash her tail playfully at him and run off, sometimes pausing to make sure he is following! Then the chase begins. Chases are playful, wild, noisy and high speed and often cover fair distances, mostly through the tree canopy but with the classic helter-skelter around tree-trunks. The commotion may alert nearby males that there is an available female nearby as there are sometimes several males in the chase. If a female decides she is sufficiently impressed with the efforts of a male, she will allow him to mate, indicating this with a soft chattering noise.
Gestation lasts 36 to 42 days, after which 3 or 4 kittens are born on average. They are born blind and deaf. The male plays no part in the rearing. The kits may begin to emerge for their first exploratory looks at the outside word at about 4 weeks old, by which time they look like mini-adult squirrels, fully furred and with the characteristic fluffy tail, so look out for them from mid-April onwards. They are developed enough to be weaned at 8 to 10 weeks, although they may continue to use the breeding drey for another month or so, as long as mum will tolerate them.
As this winter has been a relatively mild one, red squirrels have been more active than they would have been, as the need to stay warm in their dreys is slightly less urgent. This is good news for the squirrel spotter, as they are more visible at this time of year without leaves on deciduous trees. The males in particular become more confident as the urge to reproduce takes over. A bi-product of this, however, is that they take more risks, like travelling on the ground, and crossing roads. This of course means that some will be killed and eaten by predators, and others will be run over by cars. We would therefore encourage you to drive carefully on roads near wooded areas and keep a close eye out for red squirrels.