The Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is an iconic mammal in the United Kingdom, and this is a great thing as they have historically been persecuted by humans, as well as their populations being drastically impacted by the non-native Grey Squirrel. This article covers a short background on the squirrel and its conservation status, and useful information on some of the best places to see and photograph these beautiful animals.
Mankind’s Impact on the Red Squirrel
The Red Squirrel is a native species in the United Kingdom, with records supporting that they have been resident in our forests for several thousands of years. Similarly, with many other mammals, mankind has hunted them both for food and sport; and was prevalent up to the year 1927. The biggest impact however was the introduction of Grey Squirrels into the UK from North America in 1876. The gentry favoured Grey Squirrels as an ornamental species to grace their stately homes, This practice continued up to 1930, at which point the damage caused by this non-native species was recognised, and the release of grey squirrels into the wild was made illegal.
Whilst there is no direct conflict between the two squirrel species, the grey squirrel is more adaptable to our climate. They have more body fat than the reds, and their diet is more varied. The main impact of grey squirrels on the red squirrel is that the greys carry the squirrel pox virus as well as other diseases. This has proved fatal to our native red population, and consequently, numbers have dwindled dramatically. It is really only Scotland that remains a stronghold for the Reds, whereby localized initiatives have helped to stabilize the population. However, Mammal Society data indicates that there is likely a red squirrel population reduction year on year. The red squirrel is classified as Endangered in England and Wales and Near Threatened in Scotland. It is estimated that around 160,000 Red Squirrels remain in the UK and that 75% of these are resident in Scotland.
Red squirrels are protected by law, and may not be intentionally trapped, killed or kept, or have their dreys disturbed except under license.
RED SQUIRREL Diet
Red Squirrels’ diet is mainly made up of seeds and nuts. Pine seeds are a particular favorite, as are hazelnut, spruce, and larch. As well as nuts and seeds, they are known to eat young tree shoots, bark, fungi, & lichen. They will also eat animal matter such as eggs and chicks, though this tends to be opportunistic as opposed to predatory behavior.
Red Squirrels are reliant on a range of habitats including both broad-leaf and coniferous woodland. They spend around 75% of their time in trees, where they feed, nest, and breed. Therefore Reds need mature woodland areas to be able to survive, as well as sufficient connectivity between woodland to be able to thrive.
Note that this map is for a rough illustration of animal distribution across the UK, whereby dark green indicates denser populations and lighter greens indicate progressively lower populations. For a more accurate illustration see JNCC data from references.
Diurnal in nature, they are extremely active during the entirety of the day. They favor building their nests (dreys) in twists of branches in conifers, though they are not averse to nesting in purpose-built manmade nest boxes They typically line their dreys with a combination of grass, hair, and moss. During the Winter and Spring, both males and females will share the drey. However, when the females are raising young, the males fend for themselves away from the females.
Depending on the abundance of food as well as the weather, Red Squirrels can start breeding in the winter and will continue to do so well into the summer. When females are ready to breed, this is the best time to observe squirrels chasing each other through the trees and making impressive leaps from branch to branch. Females can breed up to twice per year and can have up to three youngsters, which are weaned after 10 weeks.
Whilst they are named Red Squirrels, their fur color varies between bright ginger, brown, red, and even grey during the winter, During the winter months their ear tufts are more prevalent. Their body size is around 180-240mm with a tail up to 175mm. Adults weigh up to around 350g, whilst juveniles are around half this. They live for up to six years in the wild.
RED SQUIRREL Natural Predators
Raptors are the primary predators of the Red Squirrel including buzzards and goshawks. They are also predated by foxes as well as domestic cats.
Where & When To Photograph The RED SQUIRREL
Scotland is your best bet to find and observe the Red Squirrel, although there are small populations in England & Wales. If you head to any of the nature reserves where native and established woodlands are abundant, then you will have a great chance of seeing them. Also though, there are various dedicated woodland hides in Scotland, a Google search for woodland hides in the area you are staying will give several leads. My personal preference is to photograph squirrels during late autumn, winter, and early spring. The combination of more subtle lighting conditions, shining through a forest canopy makes for some excellent photo opportunities. During the winter the ear tufts are larger too, which makes them look eleven out of ten on the cuteness scale.
Camera & Settings
If you are spotting squirrels in the open woodland, a longer lens is typically required of at least 300 to 400mm. Unlike Grey Squirrels the Reds tend to be more shy of humans, so the longer lens will get you closer to the action. If you are operating from a hide, then something around 100 to 200mm is adequate, as the hides tend to have props/feeding stations quite close.
For daytime shooting on any type of nature photography, I tend to photograph in auto-focus and on AI Servo to continuously track movement. I use an expanded center point rather than a center spot or maximum focal point for most nature photography. Most nature photographers will tell you to shoot in Aperture Priority and let the camera select the appropriate speed. This works most of the time, particularly from hides, though I normally divert from the norm and shoot in Speed Priority so that I can rapidly adjust the camera between slow and fast-moving action. This has the downside of bumping up the ISO, particularly in lower light situations, but this is something that can easily be taken care of post-processing. Better to have a fast action shot with a little noise as opposed to no shot at all! Whether you are shooting in a commercial hide, or the wild, I suggest a shutter speed of 1/500s to 1/800s to guarantee sharp images. If you are photographing squirrels jumping, then I would up the shutter speed to between 1/1250s and 1/2000s.
If you enjoyed this article, and are maybe interested in some of the photography, please check out my Red Squirrel Gallery.