Red squirrels

Red squirrel sitting on a tree branch

Mount Stewart is home to between 40 and 50 red squirrels. Discover where you are most likely to spot them on the estate and find out how our rangers are working to protect them against the non-native invasive grey squirrel.

Easily identified by their tufted ears, russet coloured fur and bushy tails, the native red squirrel is a rare sighting in Northern Ireland’s woodlands.  

Along the Ards Peninsula the National Trust has been working in partnership with the Ards Red Squirrel Group to restore the native red squirrel population and while numbers have quadrupled since the project began at Mount Stewart five years ago, the native reds aren’t out of the woods yet.

Toby Edwards is the Area Ranger leading on this project: “At Mount Stewart we have around 40-50 reds and across the whole Peninsula we estimate there are 120 reds now, which is close to the natural capacity for the area in its current condition.  When I started in 2015 the red squirrel project numbers had dropped to as few as 10-12 following the arrival of grey squirrels around 2010. Using a number of methods including clearing non-native invasive grey squirrels, restoring wildlife corridors and supplementary feeding, the project has been successful in growing red squirrel numbers.”

2020 began with a relatively mild winter resulting in lots of early breeding activity from red squirrels, but the grey squirrels have also benefitted, resulting in a fresh tide of activity from this non-native, invasive species coming in from the North Down area.

Grey Squirrels 

Grey squirrels were first introduced to Ireland from North America in 1911 and rapidly spread, causing a critical drop in numbers of the native red squirrel. Now classified as an invasive non-native species, the greys continue to pose a serious threat to the red squirrel conservation project as Toby explains:

“In the last few weeks, we have seen many grey squirrels push through protected red squirrel buffer zones across the Ards Peninsula which is a real cause for concern,” Toby explains. “In the short time, if we don’t continue to take measures to protect the reds against this invasive non-native species, we will lose our population of red squirrels altogether.”

Movement of grey squirrels brings disease and habitat degradation, threatening the success of the red squirrel breeding programme and the wider woodland ecosystem.

“It just takes one grey squirrel carrying the squirrel pox virus to wipe out our population of red squirrels here,” adds Toby. “2020 is looking to be a surge year for greys so we need to grow levels of action.”

Adolescent red squirrel at Mount Stewart
Adolescent red squirrel at Mount Stewart
Adolescent red squirrel at Mount Stewart

Looking after Red Squirrels

Red squirrels are a key species and play a vital role in regenerating our woodlands, burying nuts and seeds which grow into future trees. Northern Ireland is one of the least forested countries in Europe with less than 8% of woodland cover, so protecting reds is critical to ensure natural woodland regeneration.

The Ards Red Squirrel Group is one of 13 red squirrel volunteer groups and two NGO led project teams who work with the statutory agencies and landowners to secure the future of the red squirrel. Each of these groups works to conserve and expand the current population of red squirrels within their local area. 

The National Trust, Ards Red Squirrel Group, North Down Red Squirrel & Pine Marten Group, Ulster Wildlife and DAERA are among groups calling for Ards and North Down Council to help by meeting their legal obligation to manage the invasive non-native grey squirrel species in their district.

Toby explains; “We would like to see the council take action now to put in place a management plan to control invasive species in their district. This is part of their legal obligation to protect and enhance biodiversity. We are ready to support them in fulfilling their obligations and urge them to act quickly to save our native reds.”

A shy and elusive species, red squirrels are easier to spot in autumn when the leaves fall from the tree canopies. In early autumn you might spot them on the ground at Mount Stewart foraging for fallen seeds to store for winter. Look out for autumn signs of activity such as nibbled pine or spruce cones and hazelnuts and listen out for their distinctive calls which sounds like a chucking.

While we can't guarantee a sighting at Mount Stewart, you're most likely to encounter them early in the morning or late afternoon, in the Red Squirrel Hide (currently closed), behind the house and to the north of the lake.

Red squirrel on high alert
Red squirrel on high alert
Red squirrel on high alert

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. The habitat at Mount Stewart is ideal. 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're 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 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.

Movement of grey squirrels brings disease and habitat degradation, threatening the success of the red squirrel breeding programme and the wider woodland ecosystem.

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 Mount Stewart is a Red Squirrel sanctuary. 

If you would like to help the red squirrels, there are number of things you can do:

  • Report any sightings grey and red squirrels to CEDaR or your local red squirrel group, details of which can be found on the DAERA website
  • Reduce your speed – roadkill is the second biggest threat to the red squirrel population in the area

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