Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) have been found in the British Isles since the last Ice Age and they are our only native species of Squirrel. They were once a common sight from Scotland to Cornwall.

Numbers in the UK have fallen dramatically since grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) were introduced into large estates in the 1870s.

Since then, the UK population of reds has dropped from around 3.5 million to between 120,000 to 160,000 individuals. The population in England is thought to be as low as 20,000. The majority are in Scotland.

The Isle of Anglesey has been grey squirrel-free since 2012 and now has a population of around 800 reds up from an all-time low of just 40 when it was in danger of becoming extinct on the Island. However, few people know of the population in north east Wales in Clocaenog Forest which was at one time considered to be the last stronghold for reds in Wales.

The maps above show how widespread our native red once was and how much they have declined.

Why red squirrels matter

Squirrel Nutkin

Squirrel Nutkin

The red squirrel is one of our most iconic, native small mammals, bringing back childhood memories of stories such as Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin.

Red squirrels play an important role in the ecology of coniferous forests for example by helping to spread tree seeds and fungi.

If we do nothing to protect the red squirrel it is likely the remaining red squirrel populations will be lost in the near future, making the red squirrel the first indigenous mammal to go extinct since the beaver in the 12th century.

Red squirrels and the law
The red squirrel is a protected species in the UK and is included in Schedules 5 and 6 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (WCA) (amended by the Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000). It is an offence to intentionally kill or injure a red squirrel or intentionally or recklessly damage or destroy any structure or place a red squirrel uses for shelter or protection, or disturb a red squirrel while it occupies such a place. Therefore you must be very careful about when and where you fell any trees.

Why red squirrels are endangered

Red squirrel close-up

The red squirrel is officially classed as endangered in England and Wales and near threatened in Scotland.

The main cause behind their decline is the introduction of grey squirrels from America. There are three main reasons why greys are a threat.

  • Grey squirrels carry a disease, a Parapoxvirus, which does not appear to affect their health but often kills red squirrels.
  • Ripe acorns are a useful high energy food source for red squirrels. They cannot digest the unripe acorns as they are particularly rich in tannins.  Grey squirrels can digest unripe acorns and they deplete the crop before they ripen leaving little for the reds.
  • When red squirrels are put under pressure they will not breed as often.

Another huge factor in their decline is the loss of woodland over the last century, but road traffic and predators are all threats too.

So what's the plan?

There are plans to try to halt the decline in our biodiversity and then reverse that decline. These various plans range from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the EU Biodiversity Strategy down to those of local organisations such as CRST. Red squirrels and their habitats are part of the plan!

The Nature Recovery Plan for Wales

The plan aims to support biodiversity in Wales, providing protection for species, habitats and ecosystems.

Nature Recovery Action Plan

Conservation Plan for Red Squirrels in Wales

The Wales Squirrel Forum (WSF) and Wales Squirrel Partnership (WSP), aim to enable effective red squirrel conservation and grey squirrel management in Wales.

Conservation Plan for Red Squirrels in Wales

Grey Squirrel Management Action Plan for Wales

The plan sets out the Welsh government’s view and approach to the interventions and actions needed to reduce the effect of grey squirrels on red squirrel populations and woodlands.

Grey Squirrel Management Action Plan for Wales

Clocaenog Forest: an important habitat

Red squirrels aren't always red!

Male and female red squirrels are very similar.

Size – average body length of 22cm, a tail nearly as long again and a weight of around 300g.

Colour – can vary and may be bright orange/red, brown or even greyish

Ears – red squirrels are known for their long ear tufts but these are moulted in the summer

The slides below all show Red Squirrels. You can see how much their appearance can vary.

Frequently Asked Questions

The forest is home to only a small population of red squirrels and they are very shy. You might catch a glimpse from a distance if you are out walking there but it’s not yet very likely.

If you want to be sure of seeing red squirrels, you could visit the National Trust site in Formby, Merseyside where they have a Squirrel Walk. The squirrels there are fairly used to people and you are very likely to see them there.

Red squirrel Formby

Red squirrel at Formby (taken with phone)

Red squirrels feed on seeds, nuts, berries and fungi but mostly the seeds of conifers such as spruce and pine. Clocaenog Forest consists mainly of Norway and Sitka Spruce, Larch and Pine and is an ideal habitat for red squirrels.

No, red squirrels do not hibernate but they are less active in the winter months.  Conifer seeds can be found over the winter months and they keep stores of food to see them through difficult times when fresh food is not available.

The only mammals that truly hibernate in the UK are hedgehogs, dormice and bats.