Shy and elusive, catching even a glimpse of a red squirrel has to be one of the most thrilling moments of any walk in the countryside. Their rich russet-red coats, tufted ears and bushy tails make them on of our most loved and fascinating woodland mammals.
Although seeds from trees and plants form a major part of their diet, the shifting seasons ultimately determine food choices. Autumn and winter provide plenty of rich pickings on the woodland floor, while in springtime bulbs, shoots and berries are often eaten. Food becomes scarce by summer; a lean time until the autumn harvest begins again.
Living in nests known as dreys, red squirrels begin mating in January and usually produce a first litter in spring, with a second in the summer if sufficient food is available. The young, which are called kittens, are weaned by 10 weeks. Theythen begin fending for themselves but remain close to the drey until it's time to leave the 'family home' in autumn. Although generally a solitary creature, social interaction takes place amicably and related squirrels will share dreys to keep warm in the winter months.
Red squirrels naturally thrive best in mixed or broadleaf woodlands as the widest variety of food can be found there. But as grey squirrels continue to increase in numbers, the red is becoming restricted to large conifer woodlands and plantations.
And it's the introduction of its larger American cousin - brought over in 1876 to adorn the grounds of stately homes - which has been devastating for the red squirrel. The grey continues to multiply rapidly, colonising vast swathes of the countryside and easily outcompeting our native species for food and territory. Their strong competitive advantage means that, in a mixed and broadleaf woodland, the grey usually replaces the red within 15 years. An even bigger threat from the grey squirrel is the transmission of a virus, for which the grey generally has immunity but is deadly to the red, quickly wiping out entire populations.
Concerted efforts are being made to help protect the future of one of our most beautiful mammals, but it really is a race against time. Fortunately we can all help. If you see a red or grey squirrel, you can inform the Save Our Squirrels project at www.rsne.org.uk/sightings. Such information is vital to monitor changes in squirrel range and plan conservation strategy.