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27 Jan 2021

Red squirrels at Threave

Written by David Thompson, Estate Manager, Dumfries & Galloway, South and West
A red squirrel sits on a branch of a birch tree in woodland. It holds a nut in its front paws. Its long, red, bushy tail is held up behind it.
A Threave red squirrel enjoying a bite to eat, in November 2020
Threave Garden and School of Heritage Gardening is becoming a very popular place to view red squirrels, due to great conservation work, partnership working, and a dedicated band of staff and volunteers.

Did you know red squirrels are our only native squirrels?

These are the words I often use to open up a conversation about our lovely reds, and no-one has turned down the chance to talk squirrels with me! They are much-loved creatures, and everyone recognises and admires them, even if they don’t know much about them. It always makes me feel good when visitors see a red squirrel for the first time because, sadly, most people normally only see the non-native grey squirrel. Not to say that grey squirrels aren’t lovely animals in their own right, but unfortunately they cannot co-exist with our native species. Greys originated in North America and were introduced to the UK during the 19th century.

I never take it for granted when I see a red squirrel, because my joy is tempered by the knowledge that they’re under severe threat. A number of factors have combined to make life incredibly difficult for our red squirrel friends, the most serious being the squirrel pox virus. This highly contagious disease is carried by grey squirrels, although in most cases they do not contract the disease themselves but pass it onto the reds. It has been found that where greys are absent, there are never cases of the virus.

A red squirrel sits on a leafy woodland floor, surrounded by orange and brown fallen autumn leaves. A chunky twig lies in the foreground. The squirrel appears to be resting its front paw on its hind leg. Its long tail is stretched out behind it.
A healthy red squirrel enjoying some winter sunshine

When a red squirrel has the virus, you can plainly see the outward signs: skin lesions around the mouth and paws, and elsewhere on the body. It’s usually fatal to the animal, and at times can reach epidemic proportions where 80–90% of a local population may be lost. This is devastating on many levels, but especially in light of the other problems the species faces for survival. Thankfully, we’ve not had a case of the virus at Threave, but cases have been reported in Dumfries & Galloway.

In addition to spreading this deadly virus, grey squirrels are bigger and outcompete the reds for food, as well as stealing their food caches. Greys dominate their habitats by their sheer numbers – it’s usual to find one red squirrel per 100m², but it’s common to get up to six greys living in the same area.

A portrait, A4 sign is nailed to a wooden post beside a mossy stone wall. The sign features an illustration of a red squirrel in the middle, with text above stating: Slow Down, and text below stating: Red Squirrels.
Keep an eye out!

The non-native grey squirrel is not the only threat to our beloved reds. Road casualties have a detrimental impact on numbers and can, in some cases, wipe out a local population. If you see road signs, please slow down.

Habitat loss is another reason for the decline in numbers, as is the lack of suitable corridors for travelling and dispersing. But, all is not lost! Here at Threave we’re in the process of undertaking some habitat creation and restoration in the garden and elsewhere on the estate, to support our good population of red squirrels. Over my time here, I’ve seen more than 10 red squirrels in a day ... but not always, though, as sometimes they like to play hide and seek. These improvements will also benefit many more wildlife species, including birds, bats and other small mammals and invertebrates.

A bright yellow bucket with a plastic bag inside rests on a mossy surface in a woodland. Peeking out of the top of the bucket is a long, red, bushy tail!
Anyone seen a squirrel?!

There are many other initiatives at Threave Garden and Estate aimed at making things better for our red squirrels. Working closely with Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS), many local groups in Dumfries & Galloway have been created to try and stop the spread of grey squirrels coming into the area. This has been a concerted effort from SSRS employees, group members and landowners; everyone has come together to both strategically remove grey squirrels from priority areas and to carry out surveying/monitoring for the presence of both species. In some areas where greys have been removed, red squirrels have recolonised, which is a huge success. The National Trust for Scotland cares for a lot of land and we’re actively involved with this effort to conserve the red squirrels in the area.

We also have observation areas at Threave where people can see the squirrels close-up. This is a great opportunity for education, where people can learn about red squirrels as well as the importance of conservation. To give visitors the best possible chance of seeing the squirrels, we regularly feed them (although not on every day, in order to ensure that they continue with their natural behaviour). The main reason we feed them is to monitor the population and keep an eye out for greys. We have a strict cleaning regime: all feeders are disinfected weekly to minimise the spread of viruses and other ailments. If you’re helping out the red squirrels in your area, make sure you do the same thing too.

The habitat at Threave is great for red squirrels, with plenty of natural food (nuts, seeds, berries and mushrooms), a good close canopy in the woods so they can easily travel from tree to tree, good areas for drey/nest building, and plenty of peace to go about their daily business.

Kelton Hill Wood is a lovely place for squirrels and people alike! It can easily be found using the map in the visitor centre, or just ask a member of staff. Paths go right around the woodland, with plenty to see, especially from the viewpoint. Kelton Hill Wood Red Squirrel Hide is in a secluded part of the woodland and is a great place to see red squirrels as well as an array of birds, deer and other species. This is becoming a very popular spot, especially with photographers. As I am a keen amateur photographer myself, I often take the opportunity to catch their antics on camera, too!

A red squirrel sits up on its haunches, nibbling a nut held in its front paws. It faces the camera straight on, with its tail held up straight behind it.
These great wee subjects always seem happy for you to take pictures!

Another good place to see our amazing reds is just outside the Stables Café, by the feeder on the tree. You can be just a few metres away from them, and it’s not uncommon to see people (including staff) gathered and watching them with amazement. I am passionate about our red friends, but I know all the staff members, students and volunteers here at Threave love to see them too and actively take an interest in them.

The next time you come and visit Threave, I hope you can get as much enjoyment out of seeing red squirrels as I do.

If you’d like to help our native squirrels, please join your local Red Squirrel Group and help to conserve these amazing little creatures. If you’d like to get more involved with conservation and estate work at Threave, then please contact me at davidthompson@nts.org.uk.

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