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To the majority of people living in the British Isles today, the mention of red squirrels conjures up mental images of Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin or RoSPA’s iconic road safety educator Tufty Fluffytail. But for those privileged few who live in a ‘red squirrel only’ area there remains the opportunity to witness our native species in for real in its natural habitat.
Although the reds are elusive and timid by nature, this only serves to add to their appeal and the thrill of seeing this most charismatic of our native woodland mammals.
Squirrels belong to the order Rodentia of which there are 1650 species worldwide. Rodents are characterised by their grinding molars and their incisors, which grow throughout their life. Rodents are split into 3 main groups depending on how their jaw muscles are attached to the cheekbone. It is a misconception that squirrels belong to the same group as rats. Both red and grey squirrels are one of the 267 species of ‘tree squirrels’ worldwide, belonging to the group Sciuridae. The familiar chipmunks and flying squirrels are included in this group.
The latin name for red squirrels is Sciurus Vulgaris.
The latin name for grey squirrels is Sciurus Carolinensis
Historically our native red squirrels colonised the whole of the British Isles. It wasn’t until 1876 that Mr Brocklehurst introduced grey squirrels into Henbury Park in Cheshire. This was followed by 30 releases elsewhere in the country, thus sealing the fate of red squirrels in mainland Britain.
Woodland destruction throughout the British Isles has contributed to the reduction in the number of squirrels and over the years, tree loss due to development and modern farming methods has decreased woodland cover and vital hedges linking woods together. Small isolated populations of red squirrels have and will continue to be wiped out in poor seed crop years and will not be replaced if ‘corridors’ of hedges and / or trees linking woods together are lost.
The Isle of Wight is fortunate in having the Solent as a barrier to direct grey squirrel invasion. However our red squirrels have not been spared the landscape changes that also affect the rest of the country.