The rare red squirrel

A red squirrel on Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, Dorset

The UK population of red squirrels has dropped from a one time high of 3.5 million to under 140,000 compared to a current estimate of 2.5 million greys. The good news is that Brownsea Island is one of the safest strongholds in the south of England for these rare creatures.

Red squirrels are now an endangered species due to the loss of their woodland habitat and the introduction of the American grey.  Sadly, the greys carry the squirrelpox virus which can be deadly if transmitted to the reds.

While both species of squirrel have a similar role in the ecosystem in that they are small woodland mammals that spread the seeds of trees, red squirrels are a particularly important asset in the regeneration of pine woodlands.  Reds are specially adapted to feed on the seeds in their pine cones and greys tend to favour broadleaf woodland where many other animals can do the job of spreading the seeds, such as birds.

If red squirrels became extinct in the UK, it would not only have a negative impact on our pine woodland regeneration but we would also lose one of our most iconic native mammals.

Here’s Ranger John, telling us a bit more about the resident squirrel population and his tips for spotting them on Brownsea.

When to spot a red squirrel

Red squirrels are most active in spring and autumn so these are the best seasons to spot them. In spring, squirrels are out and about feeding on emerging foliage and flowers and gradually shed their winter coats. In autumn, they are busy hoarding their winter stores and can be seen scuttling about on the woodland floor. They start their winter moult around September when the more prominent ear tufts can be seen. While they try to put on extra weight for the winter months, the squirrels must also stay athletic enough to leap between trees.

Squirrels will generally be seen during the quieter times of the day, so if you’re planning a trip, a good time to see them is first thing when we open or later in the afternoon before we close.  Even better is to stay over night on the campsite and go red squirrel spotting after all other visitors have gone home.

Best places to spot them

Squirrels have been spotted on the woodland walk, near the Church, either posing for photographers or leaping between the oaks. Another good place to try is by the feeders up by the Villa on the Dorset Wild Trust managed area. 

Our top five squirrel spotting tips:

1. Look up as they live in the trees

2. They are easier to spot in the morning and late afternoon

3. Listen for rustling in the treetops

4. Falling pine cone seeds mean a squirrel is munching above you

5. Stand still and be very quiet as soon as you spot one

Good luck!