The Red Squirrel - rare, but they're the natives!
The relatively rare red squirrel is the version native to the UK - having been around for approximately 10,000 years. They were almost driven to extinction, however, due to the invasion of the grey squirrel from North America.
The red squirrel is now limited to some specific areas, such as Anglesey, the Isle of Wight, and parts of northern England and Scotland. There are approximately 140,000 red squirrels, and 2.5 million grey ones in the UK.
Grey squirrels, which were introduced to Britain from North America by the Victorians, compete more successfully for food and habitat, and are larger and more robust than their red relatives. They are also able to digest seeds such as acorns with more efficiency.
Another handicap for red squirrels has been squirrelpox. This produces scabs and sores in and around the eyes, nose, mouth, feet and ears, and so the infected squirrel is unable to feed or see properly. The virus is transmitted by grey squirrels and harmless to them, but it is fatal for the red ones.
The main diet for red squirrels are tree seeds, especially hazel nuts and seeds from conifer cones. They also eat tree flowers and shoots, mushrooms, and fungi from under tree bark.
Breeding can begin in mid-winter and continue through the summer. Amusing mating chases occur when several males follow a female who is ready to mate. During chases, red squirrels make spectacular leaps through the tree canopy and spiral up and down tree trunks. Females have one or two litters a year, usually of about 2-3 young.
Due to the declining population, red squirrels are protected by law, and may not be intentionally trapped, killed or kept, or have their dreys (nests) disturbed except under official licence.
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