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PETER FROST finds reds are under attack from American invaders

Our red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is native to Britain, but its future is increasingly threatened by an American invader, the grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

At this time of year the American greys are mostly tucked up in their dreys but the hardy red natives do not hibernate but store fungi in trees to eat over the winter months.

Both speciaes will have put on weight in the autumn when food was plentiful, to help them through the winter. This is important for breeding females, so that they are in good condition for producing young.

There are estimated to be only 140,000 red squirrels left in Britain, with over 2.5 million greys spreading across the mainland.

Red squirrels range widely, especially when looking for mates. They produce young, called kittens in the spring and can reproduce a second   in the summer if conditions are right.

You might see their courtship displays in the trees on woodland walks.

Females usually have two or three kittens but litters can be of up to half a dozen young.

Young red squirrels are weaned off their mother’s milk after about 8 – 12 weeks, when they have developed a complete set of teeth.

Red squirrels are seed eaters. They favour pine cones, but also eat larch and spruce. Their diet also includes fungi, shoots and fruits of shrubs and trees, and sometimes birds’ eggs.

The main threats to the survival of the reds are the increasing number of grey squirrels which force out red squirrels and also carry a disease called squirrel pox virus which is far more harmful to reds than to greys.

Many squirrels of both species also die in road traffic accidents. Gardener, angered by raids on bird feeders also kill large numbers.

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The greys can feed more efficiently in broadleaved woodlands and can survive at higher densities than red squirrels.

The main predators of red squirrels are birds of prey, such as goshawks and the rare pine marten. In some urban areas, domestic cats are also a threat when squirrels go into gardens to feed.

Red squirrels usually have russet red fur, although coat colour can vary with some reds appearing very grey. Just to further confuse some grey squirrels can have red fur down their backs and on their feet.

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Varieties of the grey squirrel can be the increasingly common black (above), albino (below) or even brunette.

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Red squirrels are slightly smaller and have ear tuffs – large tuffs in winter – while grey squirrels are stockier and rounder.

It is hard to tell between sexes as there is little difference between males and females.

Red squirrels are very elusive and spend much of their time high in trees.

Clues to look for include large dreys in trees, scratch marks on bark, and chewed pine cones that look like chewed apple cores.

Grey squirrels, originally from North America, were released in the UK by irresponsible 19th century aristocrats and landowners.

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Grey squirrels are active during the day, foraging for food in trees and on the ground – they often visit peanut feeders in gardens. In the autumn they spend time storing nuts to eat during the winter.

Grey squirrels tend to breed in between January and April and, if food is plentiful, they may have a second litter in the summer.

The grey lives on a diet of acorns, bulbs, tree shoots, buds, fungi, nuts and roots. Occasionally it too takes birds’ eggs and chicks.

The grey squirrel is particularly fond of robbing garden peanut feeders.

They are extremely successful and have replaced our native red squirrels over most of the UK and are becoming a real pest destroying our ancient woodlands as well as squeezing out our native red squirrel.

In an attempt to control numbers many are being shot and increasingly the meat is being sold by game dealers and country butchers. It is even being made into pasties and pies. The taste is rather like duck.

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Some good places to see red squirrels

Kielder Forest, Northumberland; Formby, Merseyside; Cannock Chase, Staffordshire; Isle of Wight; Brownsea Island, Dorset; Hiraethog Forest, Denbighshire; Plas Newydd, Anglesey  In both Northern Ireland and Scotland red squirrels are far easier to find.

This article appeared in the Morning Star 14 February 2014

End 648 words.

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