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Red squirrel conservation at Wallington

Red Squirrel on a tree
An endangered native red squirrel | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Wallington is home to many native species, including the beautiful and endangered red squirrel.

For over 15 years, the team at Wallington have been undertaking a red squirrel conservation programme to help safeguard the population here. It’s an ongoing challenge and as with many of this country’s native species, they face a number of threats, including habitat loss and significantly, from the non-native grey squirrel, which were introduced in the 19th Century. Grey squirrels out compete for food, can live in much denser populations than the reds can and crucially they carry a disease that is deadly to the red squirrel, squirrel pox. This is so lethal that it can wipe out a community of red squirrels within a woodland in just a few short weeks.

The constant movement of grey squirrels onto the estate has meant that the team of 14 strong rangers and volunteers work 7 days a week, 365 days a year on grey squirrel control and monitoring. With the help of the Epicollect5 app used in partnership with Red Squirrels Northern England, all sightings are recorded of both reds and greys, and data is gathered and analysed to inform of ‘hotspots’ for both on the estate, where trapping needs to be focused and where we can provide supplementary food if needed.

Storm Arwen

The size of the population of reds on the estate has always ebbed and flowed, with outbreaks of squirrel pox, and successful breeding seasons for greys both playing their part in the numbers of reds seen and recorded across the 20 square miles of Wallington. What is clear however, is that since Storm Arwen back in November 2021, sightings of reds on the estate had all but completely stopped. It is only really in these last few weeks that we are once again recording regular sightings in different locations. Arwen clearly caused significant damage to dreys, the squirrels' nests, and forced the reds further out into areas of woodland that survived the storm. This is reward for the consistent efforts from the team managing the red squirrel conservation programme here and great news for the red squirrel population, that their hard work is now starting to pay off once again.

A red squirrel balances on the thin branch of a tree while holding onto the trunk in the woodlands at Wallington.
A red squirrel at Wallington, Northumberland | © National Trust Images/Norman Scott

The difference between red squirrels and grey squirrels

There are a number of differences between the two squirrels, perhaps the most obvious is their size. A fully grown grey squirrel can reach 48cm in length whereas an adult red squirrel will reach 38cm in length. They therefore weigh a lot differently too, with greys weighing on average 575g and reds weighing 305g.

Grey squirrels can sometimes be easily mistaken for a red as they can be quite reddish in colour. A couple of ways to help identify is to look at the ears, reds will often have tufts of hair sprouting from the tops of their ears whereas the greys will not. This isn’t particularly conclusive however as reds may not always have these tufts. It’s really with the tail that you can work out which you are looking at. The grey squirrel tail has a ‘halo’ effect around the edge. The red squirrel tail is solid in colour.

Non-native grey squirrel
Non-native grey squirrel | © Richard Bradshaw

How can you help?

It is so important for us to have the best picture of what’s happening at Wallington and so if you see a squirrel on your visit, either red or grey, please do report it to a member of staff with a rough location if you’re able to provide one. This will be input into the app so we can continue to monitor frequency and locations of sightings to inform the programme going forward.