With its familiar bushy tail and tufted ears, the red squirrel is easily recognised, yet sightings of it are increasingly rare in Britain, especially in southern England.
Red squirrels under threat
Its struggle for survival began in the late 1800s with the introduction of its bigger and stronger North American cousin, the grey squirrel. Grey squirrels out-compete reds for habitat and they carry the squirrelpox virus which is fatal to reds. The Isle of Wight is special because it has no grey squirrels. It's an offence to introduce them and there are tales of the ferry being turned back to repatriate a furry grey stowaway to the mainland.
Red squirrel lifestyle
Red squirrels produce litters of three to four kittens a year. They do not hibernate, but will stay in their dreys during bad weather – although they have to come out to feed. Important food sources are hazelnuts and seeds from native Scots pine.
They supplement these with nuts from other trees such as beech and sweet chestnut, and with berries and, occasionally, fungi and insects. The red squirrel’s life expectancy is six years but only about one in six survives to adulthood. Cars, cats and dogs but also foxes, weasels and larger birds, especially buzzards, spell danger.
Looking after the woods for squirrels
We're actively managing woodland to support a healthy population of red squirrels. At Newtown and Borthwood, small areas of hazel are coppiced on an eight to 14 year cycle to create a varied habitat.
Hedge laying prolongs the life of hedges and helps to thicken up the growth from the bottom. Hedges provide important links for wildlife between areas of woodland. We also make sure that there are overhanging tree branches across woodland rides to leave ‘high-level corridors’ from tree to tree.
Where to spot red squirrels on the island
Borthwood Copse is one of the best places, although they're shy and easily disturbed by noise. They can be seen in the woodland around Newtown, across the Mottistone Estate and in the Forestry Commission’s Parkhurst Forest – and in many other parts of the Island.