21 January marks Squirrel Appreciation Day!
This day was introduced by Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator to encourage people to learn more about the UK’s most common wildlife. It is to help promote the welfare and care for our red and grey squirrels. Now I have only ever seen grey squirrels – outside our house we have a number of very large trees which are always being climbed by a group of the little grey guys. It’s quite funny seeing them around this time of year because they are so chubby I am always amazed they manage to make it up the tree in the first place!
But it turns out that grey squirrels are not our native squirrel. The red squirrel is actually our native breed, and the grey squirrels were introduced to the UK by the North Americans in around 1800. Unfortunately the grey and red breeds do not get along, and the grey squirrels forced the red ones to have to move to more remote and uninhabited areas of the UK. Today, there are estimated to only be around 140,000 red squirrels left and they are mainly located around Scotland and very northern parts of the England. There are multiple campaigns currently ongoing by the Wildlife Trust and the RSPCA to help promote squirrel welfare and to help bring the red squirrel populations up.
Threats to squirrel populations
The main issue squirrels face is that, namely, grey and red squirrels cannot live together long term. Due to their sheer numbers, grey squirrels have taken over most of England and the UK and as such red squirrel populations are dwindling. Grey squirrels also carry (but are unaffected by) squirrelpox which is fatal to red squirrels. Hence the main reason why the two species cannot live together long term. There are a number of organisations though that are currently working to help create red squirrel protection zones which would stop their habitats from being lost to deforestation or to grey squirrel populations. I shall leave links to a number of these campaigns at the end of this blog if you want more information on the work and conservation efforts done.
Unfortunately, squirrelpox is still relatively unknown although a vaccine is currently being developed. This vaccine however will not be ready for some time still (mainly due to the issue of how to actually administer the vaccine to red squirrel populations), and so the main way to protect red squirrel populations is to simply keep them away from grey squirrel populations. As it stands, there is very little chance that squirrelpox can be transmitted to humans (and even if it did, there is very little evidence to suggest that it would even be harmful to us) however it is always encouraged to not handle wildlife unless absolutely necessary (due to safety or welfare concerns for example) and if so to always wash your hands thoroughly to avoid any sort of contamination. It probably goes without saying, but this applies to every type of wildlife and not just squirrels – if in doubt, leave them be and call the RSPCA or other wildlife organisation who can advise on how much contact (if any at all) is needed in a situation.
The other issue is the reputation that squirrels have and the lack of knowledge around them. In the winter especially, people always assume that squirrels hibernate like many of the UK’s mammals. But that is not true. Physically a squirrel is just not able to store the amount of fat that would be needed to sustain them throughout the cold winter months and so hibernation is not an option. It also explains why they are known for being bird-feeder thieves, taking all of the best nuts and seeds and leaving very little for the bird populations in your garden. Squirrels are also crepuscular (i.e are most active during dawn and dusk) and so are usually active when most birds are still asleep.
How can you help?
The main way to help look after your local squirrels is to have squirrel feeders in your garden. These should be placed away from your bird feeders, preferably near to trees and higher up than a normal bird table would be. Wildlife World have a specially created collection of squirrel feeders that will help keep them fed and hydrated (as well as entertained) during the winter and colder months. You can find a link to those here.
Another way to help them is to simply enjoy them. Where I live, I have a little gang of squirrels that live in the trees nearby and they are honestly such characters. If anyone has ever visited St James’ Park in London, you will no doubt have seen the incredibly confident and borderline tame squirrels that harass people for some of their lunch, picnic or coffee. As mentioned before, always avoid handling wildlife unless it is an absolute emergency but many may still let you get quite close to them to watch them eat, play and scurry around in the ground looking for their buried nuts. As with all animals, squirrels are complex and adorable animals to see in their day to day routines, and even on my most hectic and crazy days, the little nutters outside my house never fail to make me smile.
For more information see the links below
If any of you do have squirrels, share some pictures on here of your own little neighbourhood clan! Also, if anyone has red squirrels please send as many pictures as you can – I can’t believe I didn’t even know about these little guys until researching for this post! I will definitely be looking out for these guys next time I am up north.