The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is the only native species of squirrel to England. Believed to once have a population of around 3.5 million in the UK; current population estimates there are around 15,000 red squirrels left in England.
Squirrels are arboreal mammals that like to live in mixed or broadleaf woodlands, but can live in all types of woodland. Due to competition with grey squirrels, red squirrels are increasingly restricted to coniferous woodlands.
Squirrels are active all year round and do not hibernate. They live in dreys, a ball like nest made up of interwoven twigs lined with soft materials such as leaves and moss. Dreys are usually found tight against the tree trunk high up in the tree.
There are 17 large plantation conifer forests within northern England, found in Northumberland, Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Merseyside; which have been designated to help red squirrel conservation. Each reserve is surrounded by a 5km buffer zone to protect from grey squirrels.
The grey squirrel is a non-native invasive species which was introduced from North America in 1876.
The threat of grey squirrels to red squirrels comes from their ability to live in much denser populations and their capability to decimate food sources before they become viable for red squirrels. Grey squirrels are also carriers of the squirrel pox virus, taking only one individual to introduce the virus to a population of red squirrels. The virus can spread quickly through a population, creating decline up to 25 times quicker than competition alone.
Red squirrels are protected under Appendix III of the BERN Convention (1982), Schedule 5 and 6 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and are listed under section 41 of the Natural Environment and Communities Act (2006) making them a species of principal importance.
This makes it an offence to kill, injure or take any red squirrel, to interfere with any place used for shelter or protection, or to intentionally disturb any animal occupying such a place.
The grey squirrel is listed under Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and is recognised as a global threat, being listed on the IUCN international list of 100 worst invasive species.
It is illegal to release or allow a grey squirrel to escape into the wild.