Visitors to Wildwood are in luck this week with the first sightings of our baby red squirrels.
The four new babies, the first of which was born on 27th March are now venturing out of their nest boxes for the first time and are Wildwood's first brood this year. After maturing at the park they will be released as part of Wildwood's red squirrel conservation project aimed at preventing their nationwide extinction by re-introducing red squirrels back to the UK.
Once grown up the squirrels will be sent to a conservation site such as the island of Anglesey in Wales to live wild and free, helping form a buffer population to safeguard the species against national extinction.
Red squirrels went extinct in Kent in the 1960's and many of us can remember them from our childhood and many areas like Kent once teemed with these beautiful acrobats of the trees.
Peter Smith, Wildwood Trust's Chief Executive said:
"Red squirrels are one of the most beautiful animals in the UK but sadly they face extinction unless urgent action is taken. But it's not yet too late. If we can help restore areas of woodland to a native state and make a concerted effort, we might just be able to tip the balance back in the red squirrel's favour."
"Wildwood Trust, as a charity, is committed to restoring our native and once native species and will continue to champion the restoration of natural woodlands."
Red Squirrels are just some of the huge range of British animals that can be seen at the Wildwood Discovery Park near Canterbury. For more information visit our website at www.wildwoodtrust.org or telephone 0871 782 0081.
Wildwood's 'Wildlife Conservation Park' is an ideal day out for all the family where you can come 'nose to nose' with British Wildlife. Wildwood offers its members and visitors a truly inspirational way to learn about the natural history of Britain by actually seeing the wildlife that once lived here, like the wolf, beaver, red squirrel, wild boar and many more.
Wildwood is situated close to Canterbury, just off the A291 between Herne Bay and Canterbury.
RED SQUIRREL FACTS
The Red Squirrel - Sciurus vulgaris
Recognition: Fur colour variable from bright ginger through to red and dark brown or black tinged with grey in winter; larger ear tufts in mid-winter which disappear by the summer; bushy tail which bleaches white by late summer in some individuals.
Head/body length: 180-240mm, tail about 175mm.
Weight: juveniles 100-150g; adults up to 350g.
This is the only squirrel which is native to Britain. It is active during the daytime, though in summer it may rest for an hour or two around mid-day. Squirrel nests, or dreys, are constructed of twigs in a tree fork, or hollow or above a whorl of branches close to the stem of a conifer. They are lined with soft hair, moss and dried grass. Several squirrels may share the same drey, or use the same drey on different days.
Red squirrels spend about three-quarters of their active time above ground in trees and shrubs. Their main foods are tree seeds, such as hazel nuts and seeds from conifer cones. They also eat tree flowers and shoots, mushrooms and fungi from under tree bark. Red squirrels often suffer periods of food shortage especially during July. Red squirrels are at home in conifer forests and broadleaved woodland. The distribution of red squirrels has declined drastically in the last 60 years and they are now extinct in southern England except for a few on the Isle of Wight and two small islands in Poole Harbour. Elsewhere they are confined to rather isolated populations in Wales and to only four places in central England: Thetford Chase (East Anglia), Cannock Chase (Staffordshire), Hope Forest (Derbyshire) and around Formby in Merseyside. Red squirrels are still widespread in the North of England and Scotland, but even here their range is contracting.
Breeding can begin in mid-winter and continue through the summer, depending on the weather and how much food is available. Mating chases occur where several males follow a female who is ready to mate. During chases 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. Juveniles are weaned at around 10 weeks, but do not breed until they are one year old. Red squirrels in favourable habitat can live at a population density of one squirrel per hectare of woodland. Often densities are lower than this. They survive for up to six years in the wild.
Red squirrels are protected by law, and may not be intentionally trapped, killed or kept, or have their dreys disturbed except under licence from English Nature (EN), the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) or Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
Red squirrels are considered vulnerable in Britain. However, very occasionally high densities in some Scottish forests can lead to economic damage to trees. In such cases, government agencies will assess whether to issue a licence to remove some of the red squirrels.
Historically, red squirrel populations in Britain have fluctuated widely, the species disappearing from many areas at times and recolonising at a later date. However, in the 1920s red squirrels began to be replaced by grey squirrels introduced to about 30 sites from eastern North America, between 1876 and 1929. Red squirrels seem unable to survive in the presence of greys, but the reasons for this are not fully understood. There is no evidence that grey squirrels aggressively chase out red squirrels, or that grey squirrels brought a disease with them from America which affects red squirrels. The key as to why grey have replaced red squirrels seems to be their ability to compete for food in different types of habitat. Red squirrels live in all types of woodland habitats from pure broadleaf, to mixed broadleaf and conifer, to pure conifer. However it is believed they prefer pure conifer forests because they can forage in them more efficiently and survive in them better than in broadleaf forest.
It is believed that the only real way to ensure the continued presence of red squirrels in an area is, if possible, to keep grey squirrels out, or, at least to keep their number low. This may be achieved by habitat management to alter the tree species composition and age structure of woodland to suit red but not grey squirrels. Special food hoppers which provide food for red squirrels but not the heavier grey squirrels, can help to tip the balance in favour of red squirrels. Re-introductions to large pine forests may be an important conservation tactic, although further research into the health and welfare of red squirrels during captivity and all phases of a reintroduction programme is needed.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE RED SQUIRRELS GONE?
In the past red squirrels were common. Over the last few decades we have seen a dramatic decline in numbers of red squirrels.
The red squirrel is our only native squirrel species. This century it has undergone a drastic decline and is now mainly confined to northern England, Scotland and parts of Wales.
The main cause of this decline is competition with the introduced American grey squirrel. The grey squirrel is larger than the red and better able to survive harsh weather and period of food shortage. It breeds more successfully and quickly out-competes the red squirrel for food.
Historically, red squirrels frequented the whole of the British Isles which they recolonised after the ice age. Numbers and range have always naturally fluctuated, rising and falling in relation to food availability and climate. The major decline occurred in England during the 1940s and 1050s while the grey squirrel expanded rapidly at the same time. reasons for the red squirrel decline are competition with grey squirrels, disease, habitat loss and fragmentation.
It has been estimated that about 160,000 red squirrels remain in Great Britain. 120,000 of these in Scotland and 30,000 in England with 10,000 in Wales. There are an estimated 2.5 million grey squirrels in Britain. Populations of red and grey squirrels in Northern Ireland are currently changing. Distribution is known, however population estimates have not yet been considered.
Without competition red squirrels can thrive in broadleaved and coniferous woodland. However, where the two squirrels exist, the red squirrel in general survives in conifer woods only as it is more specialised to feed off smaller seeds. There are a number of locations in Scotland where red and grey squirrels have been known to exist for many years, this is probably due to the habitat types. To aid the red squirrel in the long term it is important that appropriate habitat management is practiced to allow red squirrels to survive in areas that would otherwise be taken over by greys. This is easier said than done and much research is still needed before we can fully assist the red squirrel within our conifer woodlands.
OTHER RED SQUIRREL FACTS:
· Red squirrels can also be black, brown, cream or have white tails
· They don't hibernate
· They can leap up to 6m from tree to tree
· Their ankles are double-jointed, which allows them to swivel their feet through 180 degrees, they have sticky pads on their feet and they wee on them to get a better grip - all to help them climb
· The wee also means they mark their territories with their scent wherever they go
· They also wipe their faces along branches to leave their scent
· Squirrels weigh nuts in their hands to see if they will make good eating - too light means the nut has shrivelled inside and is thrown away
· Whenever they bury a nut in the woodland floor after holding it in their mouths, they can find it again because it will be smeared with their own individual scent from a gland in their cheek
· They take fresh fungi into the treetops to hang up to dry and store for later
· Squirrels wrap themselves in their tails, both to keep warm in winter and to shade them from the summer sun
· Sometimes they can go bald in the spring because their winter coat moults before the new summer one has grown
· They store nuts in the ground in Autumn.
· Can swim.
· Eat seeds, buds, leaves, flowers, shoots and fruit of many trees and shrubs, fungi, insects and occasional birds eggs.
· Live in a drey made of twigs, leaves and moss built in a tree.
· Moult whole coat twice a year.
· Moult ear tufts and tail once in late summer.
· They can live to 6 years of age.
· Scientific name is Sciurus vulgaris.
· Have 4 fingers and 5 toes.
· They can hang upside down.
· Young are called kittens.
· Could have 2 litters each year with 3-4 kittens in each litter.
· Kittens are born blind, pink, hairless and toothless.
· Weigh 275 - 300 gms.
· Length - body 20 - 22cm, tail 17 - 18cm.