Brownsea Island red squirrels

A red squirrel at Brownsea Island, Poole, Dorset

Once a common sight in British woodlands, there are now only 140,000 estimated to be left in Britain. Brownsea Island is one of the last remaining places in the south of England where you can spot one.

Around 200 red squirrels live on Brownsea Island, a safe haven away from their rival, the grey squirrel who outcompetes them for food and carries the squirrel pox, fatal to the red. 

The National Trust and the Dorset Wildlife Trust are helping to look after the red squirrels here through careful woodland management.  A diversity of trees is essential to provide a continous supply of food, especially seed bearing cones. 

Red squirrels eat a variety of food including beech nuts, fruits of shrubs, some funghi, insects, seeds, shoots and sweet chestnuts.  Unlike the grey, they cannot digest acorns due to the high tanin content.  Red squirrels do not hibernate and in the autumn you may often spot them scurrying around in the undergrowth burying their nuts.  They scatter hoard meaning that they bury their nuts in various places and more often than not, are unable to find them again. They do however, have a keen sense of smell which allows them to sniff out buried nuts, most probably not their own.

They live in dreys (nests) normally in mature conifer woodland.  Dreys are about 30 centimetres wide and lined with moss, feathers and shredded grass with a waterproof layer of twigs. They are normally built about six metres above ground.

Female reds give birth to an average of three kittens in March and April and if the season permits, for example there is good fodder and good weather, they may give birth to another litter in late summer or early autumn.  After six weeks, baby squirrels are weaned and sent out into the world to fend for themselves.  Usually only one from each litter will survive. 

A red squirrel in woodland
Red squirrel standing on a woodland floor
A red squirrel in woodland

Autumn is the time to spot red squirrels on Brownsea, however, they are wild animals and we can never guarantee that you will see one during your visit.  You may be able to increase your chances if you follow these handy spotting tips:

Look under and around beech and sweet chestnut trees in the autumn.

Look up as red squirrels spend most of their time in the tree canopy apart from during the autumn months when they are collecting and burying their food.

Be very quiet and still or go on a red squirrel guided walk, available twice daily during certain dates in September and October.