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Looking after red squirrels

Red squirrel with a chestnut on Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, Dorset
Red squirrel on Brownsea Island | © National Trust Images / Arnhel de Serra

The places we care for offer red squirrels a safe place to roam. Your support allows us to carry out vital conservation work needed to protect these fascinating creatures.

Red squirrels at risk

It's not always easy being a red squirrel. During the last few hundred years red squirrel populations have fallen. This is largely because of habitat loss and fragmentation, and the introduction of non-native grey squirrels in the 19th century. Since then grey squirrels have overtaken red squirrels throughout much of southern England and Wales. They compete for the same food and habitat and can spread disease.

Why are red squirrels important?

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 pinecones, while 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.

But thanks to the help of our experts, volunteers and your support, we've been able to look after red squirrels at the places we care for.

Keeping red squirrels healthy

Grey squirrels carry the squirrel pox virus and while they are mostly immune, reds have little or no immunity and can suffer badly when exposed. The virus is member of the Herpes complex and it may be that this virus is more likely to break out when a grey population reaches high densities. So a reduction in numbers may well reduce cross infection rates.

Formby's red squirrels

A previous outbreak of the virus at the Red Squirrel Reserve at Formby Point affected 70 per cent of the squirrels living there.

'Thankfully, the population has now recovered and there is also evidence that at least some of the red squirrels there have developed some immunity to the virus,' says David Bullock, the National Trust's former head of conservation.

'Our staff and volunteers, together with many people in local communities, keep a sharp eye out for grey squirrels that might be trying to enter the Red Squirrel Reserve.'

Red squirrel sitting on a fallen tree trunk on Brownsea Island, Dorset
Red squirrel on Brownsea Island | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Ways we care for red squirrels

  • Supplementary feeding of red squirrels when natural food is scarce. Maintaining a constant food supply helps to maintain red squirrel numbers.
  • Squirrel feeders must be regularly cleaned to reduce risk of disease being transferred from passing greys.
  • Our experience also suggests that by suppressing the number of grey squirrels, we can reduce the spread of a pox virus they carry.

Havens for red squirrels

Borthwood Copse, Isle of Wight
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. Hedges provide important links for wildlife between areas of woodland, so here we lay the hedges as hedge laying prolongs the life of hedges and helps to thicken up the growth from the bottom. We also make sure that there are overhanging tree branches across woodland rides to leave ‘high-level corridors’  from tree to tree.Discover red squirrels at Borthwood Copse
Brownsea Island, Dorset
This wildlife-rich island haven off Poole Harbour is a safe haven for red squirrels, filled with pine trees, which provide the squirrel’s main source of food – the seeds from the pine cones.Find out how we manage woodland on Brownsea for red squirrels
Cushendun, County Antrim
The red squirrel is protected by law and is a priority species for special protection in Northern Ireland. We’re 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.Look out for red squirrels at Cushendun
Formby, Liverpool
We keep a close eye on the red squirrel population on this dramatic stretch of coastline. Rangers are pleased to report that the squirrels are showing signs of resistance to the squirrel pox virus despite a number of confirmed cases in previous autumns.See how we're caring for the countryside at Formby
A conservator cleaning a large painting, called 'The Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall the Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817' by John Constable, from Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Donate to make a difference

Your support is essential to help us look after nature, beauty and history. Make a donation today, and together we can protect precious places for everyone, forever.

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