Meet the red squirrels of Cushendun

A red squirrel in trees.

The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is one of our most popular and well-loved mammals. Cushendun is one of the best places in Northern Ireland to spot them.

While we can't guarantee a sighting, you're most likely to encounter them early in the morning or late afternoon, in the forest beside Glenmona House, where the Glens Red Squirrel Group has built an activity playground.

Appearance

Squirrels are not always red. They vary in colour and can be brown, greyish or nearly black. They can get white hairs in their coats and tails; they can also be bleached blonde by the sun. It's still fairly easy to tell them apart from grey squirrels because red squirrels are smaller, have a more pointed face and distinctive ear tufts.

Habitat

Red squirrels prefer mixed broad-leaf and conifer plantations, with a diverse age structure. They live mostly in trees, but can sometimes be seen on the ground.

Diet

Squirrels feed on tree seeds, buds, bark, fungi and occasionally small birds and their eggs. They prefer pinecones to acorns; a gnawed pinecone is a sure sign of squirrels. In autumn, they bury food for a supply in winter.

Home, sweet home

A red squirrel's 'nest' is called a drey. Dreys are built high up in trees, close to the trunk. They're made from twigs on the outside and lined with soft, warm moss, wool, feathers and leaves. Each squirrel will build several dreys for resting and breeding. While they don't hibernate, they are less active in winter. In very bad weather, they tend to stay in their dreys.

Family life

Red squirrels typically live four to five years. Female squirrels start to breed when they're less than a year old and have three or four young each time. They have up to two litters every year; usually in early spring and summer. Baby squirrels are called kittens. They are born pink and bald, with no teeth and their eyes closed. Like all baby mammals, they drink their mother's milk. They grow up fast - at seven weeks, they're red and fluffy, and ready to leave the drey.

Threats

The red squirrel was once abundant in Ireland but has drastically reduced in numbers and distribution over the last 50 years. Habitat loss and fragmentation contributed to its decline but the biggest threat is the grey squirrel. The grey squirrel came from North America. It was introduced to Ireland from England to Castle Forbes, County Longford in 1911. Since then, grey squirrels have spread and are now established throughout Ireland. Grey squirrels are bigger than native red squirrels. They compete for the same food and habitat, and can spread disease.

Protecting the red squirrel

We must remain vigilant in order to protect the long-term future of our red squirrel population. The red squirrel is protected by law and is a priority species for special protection in Northern Ireland. The National Trust is an active member of the Northern Ireland Red Squirrel Forum and our local team of rangers work alongside the Glens Red Squirrel Group to help monitor and protect red squirrels in Cushendun.