Did you know there was such a thing as Squirrel Appreciation Day?
Well, there is and it’s today! As we’re right in mid-winter, this a hard time for wildlife here in the UK. The day was first celebrated in 2001 and is particularly poignant for many in the UK, where the sight of our native red squirrel is rare.
These days the red squirrels have some small strongholds in areas such as Brownsea Island, the Isle of Wight and Anglesey in Wales. Larger populations exist in pockets in the north of England and in Scotland.
It was on Brownsea Island at the age of nine that I saw my first red, my parents had spoken of them and were the norm when they grew up. I remember being so amazed when I was told what it was, it looked so different to the grey squirrels where I grew up in Surrey.
Red squirrels are distinguished from their grey counterparts by their smaller size, their long ear tufts and red-brown fur colour and particularly by their distinctive bushy red tail.
The native red squirrel population in the UK has a history of decline following the introduction of the American grey squirrel in the 1870s. These were originally imported as fashionable additions to estates.
Our native reds had been happily going about their business for roughly 10,000 years but were unable to compete with bigger, tougher and less fussy about what they ate new arrivals.
The greys also carry the squirrel pox virus, which can be fatal to red squirrels but generally leaves the greys untouched.
Fortunately, there are several red squirrel conservation groups working across the UK to save our native reds. Working in the BASC Conservation team I worked closely with the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Partnership with BASC’s Wales Green Shoots Project.
This conservation partnership aims to maintain and expand red squirrel range through landscape-scale grey squirrel control.
A vital part of MWRSP’s work involves monitoring the distributions of both red squirrel and grey squirrel across the Tywi Forest Area. BASC members and volunteers continue to put to use their squirrel training and monitor populations in a buffer zone around the red squirrel focus area.
I suspect few people appreciate the damage greys can do to our forests by stripping bark from trees’ main trunks (at the base and up in the canopy) and branches.
Severe damage can kill a tree while milder cases involve bad scarring, making them more vulnerable to such threats as tree pests and diseases.
It is estimated that grey squirrel bark stripping damage costs the UK timber industry some £14 million per annum.
The damage usually starts at the end of April and continues until the end of July. It’s not just tree damage though that makes grey squirrels unpopular, the taking of eggs and young chicks can be devastating for songbird and ground-nesting bird populations. They also cause damage to hoppers, feed bins and water pipes which can result in serious and costly shoot management problems.
BASC conducts several schemes in order to help restore the UK’s red squirrel population, including training, habitat restoration, volunteering days, as well as working with timber, land management and forestry organisations on controlling the grey squirrel. At different times of the year, the control of grey squirrels can take different forms.
With the leaf off the trees, winter is a good time for shooting. Shooting grey squirrels are legal and can be highly effective in reducing numbers both as part of a wider management scheme and for dealing with particular issues. Drey poking can also be effective, especially on cold winter days.
Why not get involved and help?
You can help by getting involved with surveying and monitoring, join a local community action group or even adopt a red squirrel take a look at Red Squirrel United and British Red Squirrel websites for more details. Get involved with a regional grey squirrel control group with training, attend organised shooting and drey poking days and make a difference. More information can be found here or through your regional/country officer.
Squirrel arguably provides one of the most ethical meats you can eat in the UK. It’s completely free range, low in fat and as much of the countryside is overrun with grey squirrels population control is necessary!
So, why not check out some recipes on the Taste of Game website for inspiration!
To celebrate Squirrel Appreciation Day here are my favourite facts about this nutty mammal.
- Squirrels belong to the Sciuridae family, which encompasses many small and medium-sized rodents
- The squirrel family includes tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, marmots flying squirrels, and prairie dogs amongst other rodents.
- The UK is home to the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), and more recently the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) which is classed as an invasive species.
Tell us your favourite squirrel story or share a picture of your squirrel visitors. Use #SquirrelAppreciationDay to post on social media