Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels

Frequently asked questions

 

 

 

Red

 

Grey

The only squirrel species native to the UK.   North American species introduced to the UK in the 19th Century.
Looks like
 
 

The red squirrel has a white underside, with fur ranging in colour from almost black through chestnut to light brown or grey. They have long ear tufts but these may be missing in summer.

 

As the name suggests, the grey squirrel's fur is mainly grey but with a white underside. Tail hairs are grey with a characteristic white fringe. Greys do not have ear tufts.

Diet
 
 

Reds eat mainly tree seeds but also buds, flowers and shoots of deciduous and coniferous trees. Fruits, berries, caterpillars, fungi and even birds’ eggs also feature in their diet.

 

Greys share a large number of food sources with red squirrels; however, they can also eat seeds with high tannin content (such as acorns) which red squirrels cannot digest.

Habitat
 
 
Red squirrels live in conifer forests as well as many types of broadleaved woodland in the absence of greys. Favourites include Scots pine, Norway spruce, yew, larch, hazel, beech and oak. Mixtures of conifers with a small admix of small-seeded native broadleaves offer the best opportunities for red squirrels to thrive when grey squirrels are present, particularly if Sitka spruce forms a large proportion of the forest stands.    Grey squirrels can be found in oak, beech, sweet-chestnut, horse-chestnut, sycamore and some conifer woodlands, including pines, larch and Norway spruce. They are unsuited to survival in forests dominated by Sitka spruce, but can compete successfully with red squirrels in most other habitats. 

Today, the greatest threat to the continued survival of Scotland’s red squirrels is the spread of the invasive non-native grey squirrel. Larger and more robust, grey squirrels can out-compete red squirrels for food and living space, making it more difficult for female red squirrels to reach breeding condition and for young reds to survive to adulthood. Not only do grey squirrels eat greater quantities than red squirrels, they can also digest seeds with high tannin content, such as acorns, more efficiently. In a good acorn year, this can give them a massive advantage. When grey squirrels move into a new area, red squirrels can be completely replaced within 15 years.

The process can be even more rapid when those grey squirrels carry squirrelpox, a virus that doesn’t harm greys but is fatal to red squirrels. When the virus reaches high levels in grey squirrel populations, outbreaks can occur in local red squirrels populations, causing serious decline within a matter of weeks or months.

The destruction of woodland has also contributed to the red squirrel’s decline. Habitat fragmentation, when areas of woodland become separated by development and changing land-use, is also problematic. These isolated areas are often too small to support healthy and sustainable populations of wildlife, including red squirrels.

Squirrelpox virus (SQPV) is carried by grey squirrels without causing any symptoms, but causes fatal disease in red squirrels. It produces weeping scabs around the eyes, nose, mouth, ears, feet and genitalia. The infected squirrel is very quickly unable to feed properly, and rapidly becomes unwell. Squirrelpox is usually lethal in red squirrels within about 15 days of infection.

The virus is already established in south Scotland, and is spreading northwards. It is likely that it will eventually spread through grey squirrel populations further north into the Central Belt and as far as the Highland Line.

There is currently no available evidence to suggest that red squirrels in Scotland have developed immunity to squirrelpox. A study in Lancashire indicated that approximately 8% of red squirrels exposed to SQPV may survive infection during an epidemic and produce protective antibodies. However, with such a low red squirrel survival rate, the vacated habitat is rapidly colonised by grey squirrels, and red squirrel populations are effectively prevented from recovering from the disease outbreak.

A squirrelpox vaccine is currently in development but it could be many years before this is available in a practical and affordable form that could support large-scale red squirrel conservation.

At this time, to protect Scotland’s red squirrels from squirrelpox, it is necessary to use targeted and co-ordinated grey squirrel control in carefully chosen areas. Keeping grey squirrel densities very low prevents them from moving into habitat made available when red squirrels suffer a disease-related decline. Furthermore grey squirrel populations at low densities cannot sustain circulating SQPV through the reduced rate of transfer of the virus.

Both mathematical modelling and the project’s earlier work have shown that keeping grey squirrel densities very low can help red squirrels not just to survive but to thrive, even returning to some areas from which they had been absent for many years.

You can help prevent the spread of squirrelpox and other infections by ensuring wildlife feeding equipment is regularly disinfected, and by removing any feeders visited by both red and grey squirrels.

If you find a dead red squirrel that looks obviously diseased, please contact your nearest SSRS Conservation Officer or email squirrels@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk so that follow-up action to protect local red squirrels can be taken if necessary.

It is likely that we would wish to send the carcass for post mortem in order to identify or eliminate Squirrelpox virus as the cause of disease. In the meantime please place the body somewhere safe where it cannot be carried off by animals or exposed to flies until collection can be arranged.

Although we are not aware of diseases that can be transferred from red squirrels to humans it is important to follow normal hygienic precautions. Use disposable gloves or a put your hand in a polythene bag to avoid handling the animal directly.

We also request that any other dead red squirrels you find are sent for post mortem, even if it is clearly a road victim that looks otherwise healthy. Our colleagues at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies are carrying out a long-term health study of Scotland's wild red squirrels and these specimens are a valuable contribution to that work. 

A copy of our guidance on how to package and label the squirrel carcass and the postal address can be downloaded here: Squirrel Post-Mortem Guidance Note. Please follow the directions carefully to ensure your parcel reaches its destination intact.

Over the years Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels have had a number of queries accompanied by photographs of red squirrels with a distinctive skin disease. In 2005 the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh found that the organism causing the disease was similar to Mycobacterium lepromatosis, a bacterium that causes leprosy in humans. 

The disease is unmistakeable: there is gross swelling and loss of hair around the snout, lips, eyelids, ears, genitalia and sometimes feet and lower limbs. This bare skin has a “shiny” appearance. The squirrel is usually in generally poor body condition and may have a heavy burden of parasites like fleas, ticks and mites.

We do not believe that leprosy is sufficiently common to pose a serious threat to the overall survival of red squirrels in Scotland. The main disease threat remains the squirrelpox virus.

The risk to people from squirrel leprosy is negligible. The bacteria that causes leprosy cannot survive outside the body, and evidence shows that 95% of humans are naturally unable to contract leprosy, even if they are exposed to the bacteria. Taking sensible precautions such as avoiding physical contact with wild animals and washing your hands before eating will further minimise any risk.

For more information, please see our Red Squirrel Leprosy information note.

We use live-trapping in cage-traps according to best practice guidelines, and then dispatch the animal in the most humane way possible. All staff and volunteers participating in grey squirrel control are fully trained and must follow a strict protocol.

Our management methods are designed to ensure public safety, and minimising any animal distress is uppermost in our consideration. The methods we have adopted have been deemed the most humane by the European Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (2005).

The Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 provides for duty of care for animals in captivity (live-trapped animals). This makes it an offence to inflict, or allow others to inflict, cruelty or abuse on a grey squirrel held captive.

 

The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) makes it illegal to release, or allow to escape to the wild, any captive grey squirrel.

 

The (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order 1937 makes it an offence to keep a grey squirrel in captivity except under licence.

 

The Grey Squirrels (Warfarin) Order 1973 does not allow the use of warfarin on grey squirrels for the purpose of tree protection in Scotland.

 

This is not a definitive guide to the legislation and you should refer to the original legislation if you need more details.

 

IMPORTANT

Do not attempt to trap or destroy grey squirrels without seeking advice first. If you are resident in one of our project areas, your local Red Squirrel Conservation Officer can offer advice and training on how to help control grey squirrels in a way that is legal, safe and humane.

Do not attempt to trap a grey squirrel unless you have a means of dispatching it. The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) makes it illegal to release, or allow to escape to the wild, any grey squirrel you have caught, and the (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order 1937 makes it an offence to keep a grey squirrel in captivity except under licence.

If you live in one of our project areas your local Red Squirrel Conservation Officer can offer advice and training on how to help control grey squirrels in a way that is legal, safe and humane.

Outside of project areas you will need to engage the services of a pest control company.

At this time, halting further spread of grey squirrels in strategically targeted areas is the only viable option to fully protect the strong red squirrel populations we still have across Scotland. Trapping or shooting* are the only available means of doing this in Scotland. The SSRS project utilises live cage-trapping according to best practice guidelines, and then dispatches the animal in the most humane way possible.

Habitat improvements can help red squirrels to do better than grey squirrels in carefully chosen areas. For example, red squirrels are able to survive more readily in conifer woodland – particularly in Sitka spruce - than grey squirrels. However, Scotland’s natural biodiversity as a whole relies on a variety of native woodland habitat.

Grey squirrel contraception is the subject of research, as is the development of a squirrelpox vaccine. However, these are a long way from being ready for use and may be insufficient on their own. There are suggestions that in the future Scotland’s recovering pine martens could also play a role in controlling grey squirrel numbers in some areas.

These potential solutions are promising for the future of red squirrel conservation in Scotland, and the project is following their developments closely. However, we simply can’t afford to wait in the hope that they will work. The story south of the border has shown us that red squirrels can be completely replaced within the space of a few years, especially when squirrelpox is present.

 

*Note that the project cannot support or regulate shooting of grey squirrels in the wild. For more information on shooting, please contact the British Association of Shooting and Conservation.

Sanctuaries could allow red squirrels to survive in small numbers in specific places in Scotland. The project collaborates with Forestry Commission Scotland in developing ‘red squirrel strongholds’, nineteen large woodland networks that could serve as refuges for red squirrels if their decline were allowed to continue. These predominantly Sitka spruce forests are not ideal habitat for red squirrels, but their very paucity can more or less exclude greys. They are also poor habitat for a range of other wildlife, so the strongholds need to be kept to restricted areas as far from grey squirrels as possible.

Therefore the aim of the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project is to strategically protect Scotland’s currently widespread red squirrel and help them thrive in as much of their original range as possible. We believe this is both feasible and desirable for maintaining Scotland’s natural heritage and biodiversity.

Captive breeding programmes are very expensive, laborious and unnecessary while we still have red squirrels spread widely across Scotland. Red squirrels do not breed readily in captive conditions, and captive-bred squirrels do not adapt as well to wild conditions as squirrels that were born in the wild. 

Translocations of red squirrels may sometimes be appropriate. For example, in places where forests have been restored after earlier habitat destruction has caused the local extinction of red squirrels, especially when there is no reasonable prospect of the squirrels making their own way there. Licensing must be sought from Scottish Natural Heritage for translocation projects.

 

Research in Ireland has shown that the recovering Irish pine marten population is causing grey squirrels to decline in range and numbers, allowing a complete recovery of red squirrels in areas occupied by pine martens. A similar effect has also been found to occur in several parts of Scotland where pine martens are present.

The relationship between pine martens and grey squirrels is not fully understood. While pine martens take significantly more grey squirrels than reds as prey, this is unlikely to provide the full explanation. It should be noted that although pine martens will also take red squirrels, they are both native Scottish species with important roles in the woodland ecosystem, and it seems the two species can thrive together in the right conditions. 

However, pine martens are still recovering from years of persecution in Scotland and it may take a long time before they can make a real difference in the effort to save Scotland’s red squirrels.

 

Like all animals, red squirrels instinctively know what they need to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. In most cases, if you have red squirrels in your area then there must be a ready supply of natural food nearby.

Many people like to give red squirrels a helping hand, especially in summer when their natural food is harder to find. Red squirrels will often visit bird feeders, but you can also buy (or make) specially designed squirrel feeders. For more information on what you can feed your garden red squirrels, download our supplementary feeding guide.

There are risks to feeding red squirrels. Over-feeding can create an unhealthy reliance on the food, which can cause harm to squirrels if the food supply suddenly stops, or is not providing them with all the nutrients they need to stay healthy. Lots of extra food can also artificially boost the local red squirrel population to unnatural levels. Consider feeding red squirrels sporadically, or only at certain times of year.

Feeding stations can also create a higher risk of disease spreading from one animal to another, including the squirrelpox virus. It is therefore very important that feeding equipment is regularly disinfected. If you live in an area where red squirrels are present, and grey squirrels begin visiting your garden, it is advised that you stop feeding immediately.

This year's sightings

 
 
 

Project partners 

Scottish Wildlife Trust Forestry Commission Scottish Land and Estates
 
Scottish Natural Heritage Red Squirrel Survival Trust RSPBHeritage Lottery Fund