One very special thing about Fornside is that you are likely to spot a red squirrel during your stay here.
The red squirrel is the only species of squirrel native to the UK … and it has lived here much longer than humans have. Now a protected species, they are an integral part of our natural heritage, not least because of the popularity of Squirrel Nutkin! Beatrix Potter’s character was inspired by her observations of these delightful creatures during her holidays at Lingholm on the shores of Derwentwater. ‘Owl Island’ is in fact St Herbert’s Island, which you might explore if you hire a canoe or paddleboard during your stay.
In winter the red squirrel has a thick, warm coat and bushy tail, with impressively long ear tufts. In summer the coat and tail are thinner and sleeker and often the ear tufts disappear completely. They have good eyesight and sensitive whiskers. Red squirrels have five digits on all four limbs with long, strong claws for climbing. The front hands are very dextrous at manipulating small objects such as seeds, and, like humans, some are right- and others are left-handed.
If, in our woods, you spot chewed pinecones on the ground that look like apple cores, or hear a ‘chuk chuk’ sound, a red squirrel might be nearby. Squirrels are most active first thing in the morning, soon after dawn, and they love to run along our dry-stone walls, often from tree to feeding box. Other places to spot them in the wild in Cumbria include Aira Force and around Grasmere.
What do red squirrels eat?
The red squirrel eats mostly seeds and nuts as well as fungi, berries, vegetables and garden flowers, tree sap and young shoots. Occasionally they will eat a bird egg. Red squirrels spend most of their waking hours searching for food, with a rest at midday on longer warmer days. Famously, they ‘squirrel away’ any spare food, burying it either in the ground, or in nooks or holes in trees. They only remember very roughly where they hid the food; they use their powerful sense of smell to find it again, even under a foot of snow!
Where do red squirrels live?
The red squirrel’s natural habitats are coniferous and broadleaf woodlands (oaks, beeches, maples, birches) across most of northern Europe and northern Asia. You may be surprised to learn that they can also live in suburban and even urban habitats … as long as there are no threats from grey squirrels.
The red squirrel makes its drey, or nest, 4-6m off the ground in a branch-fork, using twigs to form a messy domed structure about the size of a football. They line it with moss, leaves, grass and bark. They often have a second home in the form of a flatter, more open summer drey. Their dreys look rather like rook or magpie nests, and in fact squirrels and birds have been known to adopt and adapt each others’ nests! If there are leaves woven in, it’s probably home to a squirrel. They are solitary animals, but occasionally they will share their drey with other squirrels, to keep warm in winter. They don’t hibernate, but if the weather is very harsh, they may stay in their dreys for a few days.
Young red squirrels
Once a female red squirrel is two years old, she can have young up to twice a year, in Spring and late Summer, as long as she is strong and there is plenty of food available. A litter usually contains three young kits who are born tiny and helpless. By 42 days old they start to eat solids and leave the nest on their own. Only 50% of the young will survive their first Winter, but those that do tend to live for three to seven years.
Red squirrels under threat – a protected species
In Great Britain, Ireland, and in Italy red squirrel numbers have decreased drastically in recent years, mainly due to the introduction in Victorian times of the Eastern Grey Squirrel from North America. They grey is a different species of squirrel, which can be territorial. It is estimated that red squirrel numbers are as low as 160,000 in the UK, compared to 2.7million grey squirrels. A century ago, the 1920s the red squirrel was still a common sight throughout the British Isles, but now it now only lives in the wild in a few small corners of England and Wales. Scotland and Ireland have had more success in protecting the red squirrel, but it remains under threat.
Do grey and red squirrels actually fight eachother? Actually, the reasons behind the dominance of the greys and decline of the reds are more complicated than this. Grey squirrels carry squirrelpox, which doesn’t affect them but will kill an infected red squirrel. They can also digest acorns better than the red, so they grow and reproduce more quickly. The red squirrel, faced with less food, will breed less often. Finally, many broadleaf woodlands are being damaged by grey squirrels, who strip bark from tree trunks and branches, reducing the available habitat for reds.
For these reasons, red squirrel conservation is all about grey squirrel control, mainly through shooting and trapping. In Scotland, the pine marten has also been encouraged to return, which is helping the reds; pine martens can easily catch the greys, who spend more time on the ground and aren’t as quick as escaping as the reds. Just over twenty years ago, all grey squirrels on the Welsh island of Anglesey were eliminated, and since then the red squirrels have been thriving again. Due to huge conservation efforts, red squirrel numbers in Scotland are stabilising, so there is renewed hope for red squirrels in other areas of Britain and Ireland and there are several red squirrel protection projects.
How can I help the red squirrels?
Squirrel food: At Fornside, we regularly feed the red squirrels with a special mix of sunflower seeds, mixed nuts, pine nuts and berries, but you are welcome to give them a little extra. You can buy it in Podgy Paws in Keswick or WCF in Penrith or Cockermouth. It is important to consider this as a bonus rather than their staple feed. Our woods and copse and other local woodlands should provide enough for them, and we hope to plant even more fruit and nut trees, which will help them thrive.
Control cats and dogs: Although it may seem harmless to allow your dog to chase a squirrel because it never catches them, the fear caused and energy expended in escaping can have a detrimental effect on the squirrel’s propensity to reproduce, or even cause it to abandon its young in favour of a safer place to live. If you have a cat and live near red squirrels, ensure your cat wears a bell so that it alerts the squirrel to the danger before it can creep up and catch them.
Donate: There are many national charitable and community organisations which work hard to protect red squirrels, including the National Trust, Red Squirrel Survival Trust, The Wildlife Trust and the Woodland Trust.
If you would like to help our local red squirrels, consider supporting the Cumbria Wildlife Trust or even sponsor a red squirrel! Our local Keswick Red Squirrel group are raising funds for food and equipment to help monitor and support red squirrels. Find out even more about red squirrels here.
Huge thanks to photographer Malcolm Blenkey for kindly giving us the two wonderful images of red squirrels on dry stone walls, taken during his holiday here at Fornside.