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Caring for Cragside's Red Squirrels

A close up of a red squirrel on a branch on the floor of woodland on Brownsea Island, Dorset
There are red squirrels all across the grounds at Cragside | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

If you hear a rustle among the fallen leaves on a walk through the woodland, make sure you scan your eyes across the ground. You may spot one of Cragside’s resident red squirrels. Be quick, as they're shy and quick on their feet. Usually, the tufty eared creatures like to hang out in the canopy of the trees, but they do come down to the ground to find food from the forest floor.

Caring for the red squirrels

Cragside is one of a few locations that has a population of the UK’s native red squirrels. Smaller and nimbler than their grey, American cousins, they have ginger fur that tufts around their ears and soft bushy tails.

These shy creatures are fast on their feet, making them tricky to spot but you may be lucky to see one hopping along the path ahead of you or jumping across branches in the canopy. The red squirrels live across the grounds but can sometimes be seen where the woodland opens up. It’s good to keep your eyes peeled at Nelly’s Moss Lakes, the paths at Cragend quarry, in the woodland next to the Debdon Burn and high up in the trees in the Pinetum.

Why red squirrel conservation is needed

We run a conservation programme to care for the red squirrel population at Cragside. In the 19th Century, the non-native grey squirrel was introduced to the UK and as a much larger species they can often outcompete for food and habitat. Not only that, the grey squirrels carry a disease called Squirrel Pox. The grey population is largely immune to this disease which is deadly to the reds. The greys carry this on their paws and mouth and if a red squirrel is infected, they can sadly die within a couple of weeks.

Red squirrel on the feeder at Allan Bank, Cumbria
The red squirrel population is monitored in a variety of different ways | © National Trust Images/Michael Hirst

Species monitoring

There are red and grey squirrels living in the woodland at Cragside so it’s important that we monitor the numbers of both species. We do this through variety of different ways.

The outdoor team have set up feeders alongside wildlife cameras to pinpoint where red and grey squirrels are roaming and feeding.

We also carry out annual surveys in a couple of locations on the grounds. As the red squirrels don’t like ‘noise’ these survey routes are on quieter parts of the estate away from major footpaths and buildings.

The survey route includes a line of feeders in different trees with wildlife cameras. The lids of the feeders are fitted with strips of Velcro, which traps some of the hair from the squirrel as they gather food. These samples are then taken back to the office and magnified to see the true colour of the fur as red squirrels have some grey fur and vice versa. We also use the same sampling technique using tubes. Squirrels scurry through tubes that are also lined with Velcro to get to the food at the other side.

We also work volunteers that carry out observation surveys and monitoring work at these locations. They sit really still and wear neutral, darker colours so as not to disturb the wildlife.

What we do with the data

Sightings of both the red and grey squirrel populations are recorded and reported to Red Squirrels North East to create a UK wide picture of how the species are doing.

We respond immediately to sightings of grey squirrels by setting traps to catch and control the non-native population.

How to get involved

You can get involved in helping us protect red squirrels. If you spot a red or grey squirrel during your visit, email us at with a date, time and location of your sighting. If you’ve been out walking and you’re unsure of your exact location, you can use a What3Words reference.

Signs that red squirrels are in the area

Red Squirrels like to use fallen tree stumps as tables while they eat. The squirrels love to eat pinecones. They peel back the 'tiles' to get to the seeds inside. The foresters often find shredded pinecone cores on the tops of stumps with a neat pile of pinecone tiles by the side.

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