Squirrel Appreciation Day
To celebrate ‘Squirrel Appreciation Day’ on 21st January 2020, Keeper Donna Sinclair explains about the issues facing Red Squirrels in Cornwall and beyond.
Paradise Park has kept and bred Red Squirrels for many years. The first pair here were from the Welsh Mountain Zoo, our aim was to breed young squirrels for a release project on Anglesey and we achieved this over many years.
Now Red Squirrel conservation has a new local direction – the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project was founded in 2009, aiming to release the Red Squirrel back into Cornwall and Paradise Park has helped with advice on red squirrel management and captive breeding.
There are three places in Cornwall that are set up to breed Red Squirrels, one is Paradise Park but now also the Trelowarren estate and Trewithen Gardens. The Lost Gardens of Heligan is also planning to build enclosures to house Red Squirrels in the near future. The aim of the project over the coming years is to breed healthy Red Squirrels between the collections, then release them to create a free-living population in the wild.
So, going back to squirrel basics, why the need for a Cornwall Red Squirrel Project? Well the problem is that the squirrels we commonly see across the UK are non-native Grey Squirrels. Originally from North America, and lovely to see in their native lands, through no fault of their own they are a pest species here in Cornwall. The Grey Squirrel was actually brought into the UK in 1876 as an ornamental species but is now considered amongst the 100 worst invasive species globally.
The problem is that Red and Grey Squirrels cannot coexist. One reason for this is that the Greys carry a virus known as ‘squirrel pox’. Many Greys carry this disease and show no signs of illness but if it is passed onto a Red Squirrel the virus is fatal. Another factor is that the Grey Squirrel is around twice the size of a Red Squirrel and they can live in much higher densities. As a result, the Grey Squirrel also out-competes Reds for habitat and resources.
In order for the Red Squirrel to be re-introduced the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project needs to remove the Grey Squirrel and more importantly demonstrate future re-invasion can be prevented. The peninsulas of Land’s End and the Lizard are being targeted, both having the advantage of long coastal borders. They are being sectioned off into zones with large buffer areas being created to keep the Red Squirrels safe.
At the moment the only place where Red Squirrels can be seen is at Paradise Park in Hayle. These squirrels are an important part of the captive breeding group, when the time comes it will be them and their offspring that will be released – I know I’ll be seeking out a glimpse of them in their new woodland homes!
To find out more information on the Red Squirrel in Cornwall visit the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project Facebook page here
10 Squirrel Facts by the Mammal Society – Full details here
1. Grey squirrels, at around 400-720g (females), are considerably larger than red squirrels (up to around 350g).
2. Squirrels don’t hibernate, however, they are far less active during the winter which means that you won’t see them as often.
3. Squirrels are diurnal and have active periods in the early morning and late afternoon.
4. Like humans squirrels can be left or right-handed.
5. Baby squirrels are called kittens. They are born blind and hairless.
6. There are approx. 280 species in the squirrel family alive today – includes arboreal and gliding squirrels, terrestrial marmots and ground squirrels and intermediate chipmunks.
7. Red squirrels have wide regional colour variation across their European range and dorsal colour can be dark red to black to brown to grey to ‘blue.’ Their tail, feet and ears can be the same colour or contrast with their back.
8. Red squirrels moult twice a year but the moults go different ways: the spring moult goes from front to back and the autumn moult from back to front.
9. Squirrels have double-jointed ankles which allow their feet to face forwards or backwards.
10. Red squirrels are endangered in England and Wales and Near Threatened in Scotland. The primary threat to red squirrels is disease outbreaks, particularly squirrel pox virus which is harboured by grey squirrels.