Q&A: the truth about red squirrels

We're going nuts for national red squirrel week, and to celebrate we’ve put together a fact file of everything you need to know about the endangered creatures.

Ranger Emma leads guests on a Red Squirrel Walk
Ranger Emma leads guests on a Red Squirrel Walk
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Ranger Emma leads guests on a Red Squirrel Walk
Ranger Emma leads guests on a Red Squirrel Walk

If you’ve visited Center Parcs before you’ll probably know that Whinfell Forest is a red squirrel conservation area, so I spoke to the Village’s Senior Ranger, Emma Tapp, to get the facts.

How did red squirrels become endangered?
Red squirrels are a native species dating back thousands of years ago. Grey squirrels are indigenous to America and, in the Victorian era, grey squirrels were introduced into the UK without realising the consequences. They soon noticed that the number of red squirrels were decreasing dramatically, but it was too late. There are a couple of reasons for this incompatibility; mainly it’s down to the fact that grey squirrels can compete more successfully for food supplies, leaving their red counterparts struggling to survive. Grey squirrels also carry the squirrel pox virus, which has no effect on them but causes disease in reds. There are now around 140,000 red squirrels in the UK, while there are at least 3 million grey squirrels.

How does Whinfell Forest help red squirrels?
The 400 acres of woodland that make up Whinfell Forest is dominated by Scots Pine and Norway Spruce, which is a haven for the endangered red squirrel. The forest became a national red squirrel conservation area in 2002 and is one of only 16 in the England. To enable this, there were certain monitoring strategies formed in the forest to help maintain the red squirrel population. For example, we employ a dedicated Red Squirrel Ranger – Jerry – whose job is to protect red squirrels on the Village from the threat of grey squirrels.To recognise the Village’s hard work, this year Whinfell Forest was awarded by the Red Squirrel Survival Trust for its outstanding achievement in red squirrel conservation.

The job of rearing the young falls entirely to mum and it’s not easy; only 20 to 50 per cent of kittens will make it to adulthood

How do red squirrels breed and rear their young?
Baby red squirrels are called kittens (aww!) and the average female will have up to three litters each year. The job of rearing the kittens falls entirely to the mum and it’s not easy; only 20 to 50 per cent of kittens will make it to adulthood. When born, the little ones will be completely naked of fur, which grows after four weeks. They’ll be weaned off milk after 8-12 weeks, once they’ve developed a complete set of teeth. Typically at 16 weeks the kittens will become more independent and will search for their own food and explore the habitat. At this young age kittens will tolerate each other, but as squirrels grow older they become more solitary, only coming together when it’s breeding season – around February of each year.

What’s the lifespan of a red squirrel?
It entirely depends on the food availability and risk from predators in the woodland, for example birds of prey such as pine marten. All being well, a red squirrel will survive between 3 to 5 years.

How do they survive in the wild?
Red squirrels’ delicacy of choice is the pine cone; they eat the seeds inside them and need at least 120 seeds each day. They can also eat other foods – such as acorns and beech nuts – but only once they’re ripe enough. But as grey squirrels aren’t too fussy and will eat these before they’re ripe, this is when food competition starts to grow and cause problems. Squirrels don’t hibernate in winter, so when food is plentiful they’ll pile on the pounds during autumn to help them survive the colder months.

Red squirrels live in a drey, which is made of twigs and sticks on the outside and moss and hair on the inside. Very cosy! As mentioned, adult squirrels are lone rangers most of the time but they’ll share dreys during the winter to keep warm together. They’ll build these homes in forks of tree trunks, into a ball shape – very distinctive from any type of bird nest.

Did you know?

  • As the main source of heat loss, red squirrels have evolved to grow fur from their ears – known as tuft – during the winter to keep their body warm
  • The Red Squirrel Survival Trust was formed by Prince Charles, who is the patron of the group, as he wanted to help the plight of the native species
  • Red squirrels can rotate their ankles 180 degrees so that they can go up and down trees head-first. Doing so allows their hind paws to point backwards, giving them a better grip on the tree bark.

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Amy Dickson

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Amy Dickson

As Brand Content Manager I plan, create and curate the best articles, photos, videos and music for our channels, in particular the blog. With a degree in Journalism under my belt and many years’ experience in the big smoke as a journalist and editor, my focus is firmly on discovering the little gems hidden away in Center Parcs life, before buffing them up to make them sparkle online. From on-village events to the latest travel industry trends, I’ll be there – notepad in hand – to bring you the most entertaining and interesting stories.