Red Squirrels - Gardeners of the Forest
Our native red squirrels are an integral part of the countryside and our forests. But due to a number of factors their numbers have been declining for many years. The red squirrel can grow up to 25cm in length with their big bushy tails accounting for half their size. They are one of Ireland’s most agile creatures and this combined with their sharp vision, allows the red squirrel to climb & jump through the tree's canopy with ease.
Red squirrels are distinguishable from grey squirrels in many ways, not just colour. The red squirrel, with it's furry reddish, brown coat weighs only half that of the grey squirrel. Red squirrels forage high up the in the tree’s canopy while grey squirrels forage along the forest floor. While red squirrels are completely dependent on the forest environment for their food source, the grey squirrel has become more adaptable to the changing environment.
Habitats for Red Squirrels
Red squirrels ideally need a mix of both coniferous and deciduous trees to meet their needs. They nest in dregs which they build high up in the tree’s canopy from twigs, dry grass and moss. They can also build nests in old tree trunks or hollows in branches. Conifers are more suited to red squirrels with pine, fir & spruce being the most common home. It is thought that, depending on the quality of the habitat & nature of the trees, a single squirrel can require anywhere from 3 to 50 hectares in which to forage for food. Either way, red squirrels require a large area of continuous woodland in which to survive.
Food Source for Red Squirrels
Their feeding habits vary over the course of the year, but on any given day they must consume around. 5% of their body weight in food to remain healthy. Their main source of food is nuts and berries that is readily available in woodlands. Pine nuts, acorns, tree sap, spruce seeds, berries, fungi, buds and bark all make up the staple diet of a red squirrel. As these squirrels prepare for the Winter months, they will forage early in the morning in search of food. To survive the cold Winters, red squirrels will hoard stock piles of nuts and berries in holes in soft ground on the forest floor. This way, they only need to leave their nest periodically during the Winter to feed. It is this process of foraging and burying fruits and seeds that allows of forests continue to grow as the squirrel themselves sow the seeds.
In Ireland the red squirrel can still be found in most mixed woodlands. They are most common in the south & east of the country, but their numbers have declined along the west coast where mixed woodland is less common and in the midlands where grey squirrel numbers have led to the decline in red squirrels. Grey squirrels, who forage along the woodland floor can ransack red squirrel’s Winter food store leaving the red squirrel to starve.
Other reasons for the decline in red squirrels include other mammals including pine martins, foxes and predatory birds, an increase in the keeping of domestic pets and deaths along roadways.