NATURE NOTES - Red squirrels back from the brink

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IT’S been a while since we had been to see the red squirrels at Formby – in fact the last time we visited we didn’t see any as ‘squirrel pox’ had devastated the population.

All was well for our red squirrel until one dread day in 1876 when a Victorian landowner thought it would be quite nice to import a couple of those unusual greys from North America. Who was that man I hear you shout?

Evidence points to a certain Thomas Emmet Brocklehurst of Henbury Park in Cheshire. If he only knew the chaos his actions would cause. By the 1930s the population of greys had gone mad – so much so that the government agreed they were a pest. A bounty of threepence a tail was offered after the war. A series of efforts was made over following decades to stop the grey invasion, but none worked. Then it was discovered that the grey carries the disease squirrel pox which was lethal to our native reds.

We were lucky enough to see four squirrels and talking with the warden it seems that the population is now recovering well with 14 red squirrels establishing a breeding population again.

Here is some info on the red squirrel.

The favourite habitat of the red squirrel is a large, mature Scots pine wood but they will also live in deciduous woodlands. The squirrels live mostly high up in the trees and build nests, dreys, in the forks of branches.

Often two or three dreys are in use at any one time; these may be close together or wide apart, depending on the squirrels’ range.

Males may live in an area of up to 17 hectares (the size of 34 football pitches). In the winter and early spring squirrels of all ages and both males and females may share dreys but only if their territories overlap and they feed close together i.e. they know each other. Drey sharing usually stops in late spring and summer when the females are raising their young.

Red squirrels are diurnal and are active for much of the day, often from before dawn until it is dark, pausing only for a midday rest.

They have few natural predators so can take the risk of being out in broad daylight. They escape attack from foxes and birds of prey by spending most of their time up in the trees. They forage on the ground for brief spells, particularly in autumn when they collect acorns, beech masts and other nuts to store for winter.

The mating season often starts on warm days in January, the squirrels chasing each other through the branches. The female red squirrel may produce two litters in a good year, one in the spring (April) and the other in summer (August).

There are, on average, three babies in a litter. The breeding drey is usually a little larger than normal with a thick, soft, grassy lining. The young are born blind and naked. If she is disturbed, she will carry the babies in her mouth, one by one, to another nest, which is sometimes quite a distance away.