Red squirrels on Brownsea Island

Red Squirrel hiding in the trees on Brownsea Island © John Millar

Red Squirrel hiding in the trees on Brownsea Island

Almost extinct in Southern England, the red squirrel is the most important pine feeding creature on Brownsea Island, where there are no competing grey squirrels.

The squirrels are most active in spring and autumn around sunrise and sunset. They can be found in all the wooded areas of the island.

However, they are very shy and can be difficult to spot, especially in the hot summer months. Partly-eaten cones may be the only clues. They feed on seeds in the cones all year round.

Red squirrel facts

  • Red squirrels can tell by the weight of a hazelnut whether or not it contains a juicy kernel. They do not waste valuable time and energy opening dud nuts.
  • Red squirrels cannot live on acorns alone. It is believed that the tannins they contain cause digestive problems. They have to be eaten as part of a varied diet.
  • They need to eat daily and, if food intake is low because of poor weather or food shortage, they can quickly succumb to disease or starvation. Red squirrels need to gain at least 10 per cent of their body weight in fat if they are to survive the winter.
  • A red squirrel will usually have constructed several dreys in its home range.
  • Switching dreys helps to prevent a build-up of lice and fleas. Dreys are built in both deciduous trees and conifers.
  • Body fur is moulted in spring and autumn, but the tail and ear tufts are moulted only once a year in the summer.
  • Sexual maturity in the red squirrel is reached at approximately 11 months. Males are ready to mate at any time of the year, although some become sexually inactive between September and November. Females can produce two litters a year with an average of three youngsters in each litter. Gestation takes approximately 38 days.
  • Breeding is dependent on the availability of a good food supply. It will not take place if the red squirrels are hungry or in poor physical condition.
  • Red squirrels prefer a closed canopy, which provides cover and facilitates travel amongst the branches without touching the ground.

There are at present approximately 200 red squirrels on Brownsea Island, but numbers fluctuate from year to year.