The plight of red squirrels
The Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is our only native species of squirrel, but it is under threat, having nearly completely disappeared from most of the UK in just under 150 years: declining from around 3.5 million to just 140,000.
In 2020 the Mammal Society released an official Red List for British Mammals, highlighting the species most at risk. The red squirrel is classified as ‘Endangered’ and is one of the 19 species considered at risk of extinction in Britain.
But Lancashire Wildlife Trust, in partnership with Red Alert, are working hard to ensure this doesn’t happen in Merseyside and Lancashire. Despite two outbreaks of squirrel pox in the last 12 years, the population is still going strong thanks to the perseverance and dedication of our volunteers and Project Officers.
It is our aim that red squirrels will once again become a common sight throughout North Merseyside, West Lancashire and beyond.
Why do we love this species so much?
For many of us the red squirrel brings back childhood memories of Squirrel Nutkin, a character from the famous Beatrix Potter series. The red squirrel is one of our most iconic, native and much-loved small mammals, and seeing one for the first time is a special moment that everybody should experience.
In terms of ecological niche, the red squirrel is a key seed disperser for our native tree species such as Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris). They also spread mychorrizal fungi spores that are incredibly important for their symbiosis with trees. Red squirrels therefore play a vital role in the regeneration of coniferous woodlands which are also an important habitat for other species like the goshawk, pine marten and wildcat.
What are the threats to red squirrels?
The main threat to the species has been the introduction of the invasive grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), brought over from North America by the Victorians in the 1870s.
Not only do grey squirrels outcompete reds for food and resources, but they also carry the squirrel pox virus. This virus is fatal to reds, yet is carried by greys without any impact on their health. Recent studies have shown that up to 100% of grey squirrels in an area can be carrying the virus. Where the virus is present, greys replace red squirrels up to 20 times faster than through competition alone.
Unfortunately, red squirrels face numerous other threats such as predation by domestic cats and dogs, roadkill and habitat loss and fragmentation.
Red squirrels and their resting places receive full protection in the UK under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. Grey squirrels are listed on Schedule 9 of this Act, which makes it illegal to release a grey squirrel or allow it to escape.
We carry out standardised monitoring of red and grey squirrels throughout North Merseyside and West Lancashire every spring and autumn and have been doing so since 2002. This has enabled us to track the changes in the red squirrel population throughout the two squirrel pox outbreaks, and also means we can monitor overwinter survival and breeding success.
North Merseyside is home to one of the few urban red squirrel populations in England. We have been involved in some exciting research with Kat Fingland at Nottingham Trent University who is researching how red squirrels utilise the urban environment. You can read about the project here.
We have worked with Kyrus Ltd to train the first red squirrel conservation detection dog in the country. Max is helping us to find sick and dead red squirrels so we can react more quickly to disease outbreaks. You can see him in action in the video below, and click here to read more about one of his finds in Bangor.
We were involved in the Sanger Institute's work to sequence the genomes of 25 British mammals, and between 2016 and 2020 Lancashire Wildlife Trust was a partner in the Red Squirrels United project: the biggest ever coalition of academics and delivery partners working together on a scientifically robust programme of conservation for our iconic red squirrels.
Grey squirrel management
We work with landowners and volunteers throughout North Merseyside and West Lancashire to reduce the threats from grey squirrels in both woodlands and urban areas. If you would like more information please email email@example.com or phone 07590 745862.
Search for red squirrel volunteering opportunities
Report your squirrel sightings
Please report sightings of red and grey squirrels. This will help us to accurately map the distribution of both species throughout the project area.
The easiest way to report red squirrel sightings is through the iNaturalist app. Click here to view the squirrel observations in your local area and add your own sightings to our iNaturalist project.
You can also record a red squirrel sighting by completing this form.
If you spot a grey squirrel or a sick red squirrel, please call 07590 745862. For general enquiries please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
How you can help red squirrels
You can also help the great red squirrel comeback by joining the local volunteer group dedicated to red squirrel conservation in our area: Red Alert (Lancashire & Merseyside). There are local group meetings every season, so if you're interested in joining in and learning more then please contact us.
If you're lucky enough to have red squirrels visiting your garden, please clean any feeders and water bowls regularly. Sterilising feeders used by reds and greys will help to minimise the risk of squirrel pox and any other diseases spreading. Also make sure you provide a variety of foods such as monkey nuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, apple, carrot and fresh water.
Remember, feeding should only be supplementary. To ensure that red squirrels still forage naturally, only provide food every few days.