Facts about squirrels

Squirrels are hardy creatures, and once they move in it can be hard to get them out. Read our handy hints to find out what makes these furry-tailed creatures tick.

How to identify a squirrel

The UK is home to two species of squirrel; the grey squirrel and the rarer red squirrel. Identification of a squirrel may be complicated, as coat colour is not always the best indication of species. The ears and tail are better guides for accurate recognition.

Red squirrel

  • Key features

Ear tufts on adults and a bushy tail that's all one colour.

  • Coat

Usually reddish-brown with a pale 'bib', they can also appear dark or very light due to bleaching by the summer sun.

  • Size

18–22 cm body length. Red squirrels have a slender build and weigh around 275–350 g.

  • Behaviour

Red squirrels spend most of their time in trees. They're quite timid, rarely seen far from tree cover.

Grey squirrel

  • Key features

Grey squirrels don't have ear tufts and their tails have a white 'halo' around the edge.

  • Coat

Their coat is predominantly grey. They often have a red/brown tinge along the body and face.

  • Size

Grey squirrels are 25–27 cm in body length, have a stocky build and weigh between 400–600 g.

  • Behaviour

Quite bold and tenacious, frequently seen on the ground as well as in trees. They can be seen a distance from tree cover on open ground.

Where do squirrels live?

Grey squirrels are widespread throughout England and Wales, and are common in local pockets in Scotland.

Woodland is the best environment for most squirrels as trees provide plenty of food and shelter. Squirrels thrive with a mixture of foliage and good ground cover including bulbs, fungi and berry-bearing bushes. Grey squirrels can adapt to the open and are commonly found in parks and gardens.

Home for a squirrel is either a nest (grey) hidden in the high branches, or a den in a hollow tree. These provide shelter and a place to rear their young. They are also known to get access to loft spaces.

What do squirrels eat?

A squirrel's diet varies depending on the season and what is available. Though their staple food is tree seed, squirrels also eat flowers, shoots and bark and may even rob bird nests in spring.

Squirrels store seeds and nuts by burying them just below the surface of the soil. They make numerous caches with only a couple of nuts or seeds in each one. The squirrel's excellent spatial memory, combined with its keen sense of smell, helps them find these caches when food is scarce.

What attracts squirrels?

Like most animals, squirrels are attracted to food, especially if there's a ready supply. If you don't want to encourage their visits then feeding a squirrel is not recommended.

Bird feeders attract large numbers of squirrels, and their agility and dexterity means squirrel-proofing them is extremely difficult. But if you can't bear to get rid of your bird feeder, here are some tips to make it more squirrel proof.

  • Put grease or oil on feeder poles to prevent squirrels from climbing up to it.

  • Enclose the entire feeder in a wire cage. This will prevent access for squirrels, but still allow birds in.

How do I know I have a squirrel problem?

Squirrels make a lot of noise, so an increased racket may be a sign that you have a furry visitor. You might also find greys with twigs, leaves and torn up insulation in your loft space.

Squirrel droppings vary in shape and colour but may be spherical or more elongated. They are easily confused with those of the brown rat.

If you think you have a squirrel problem, it's best to act quickly as they can strip insulation from electrical cables in your attic.

Are squirrels harmful?

Opinion varies. While some claim squirrels may carry plague or other diseases, others say squirrels do not carry any harmful diseases which can be transferred to humans.

  • It's best not to take any chances. Avoid physical contact with the animal where possible. If you need to handle a squirrel then wear suitable protective gloves.

  • If you do get bitten then seek immediate medical advice, and be aware that you may need an injection against tetanus.

  • The most common type of squirrel bite is a result of feeding squirrels by hand. To avoid this, never hold the food between your fingers; drop food on the floor and don't be tempted to encourage the squirrel onto your hand.

  • Remember, the majority of animals will bite if they are cornered or frightened.

  • Grey squirrels begin mating between December/January and May/June.

  • Up to two litters a year per female are possible.

  • Each litter usually contains three or four young.

  • The lifespan of the grey squirrel can be up to 10 years, although most only manage three or four.

  • Squirrels are incredibly agile and have a very accurate spatial memory.

  • Red squirrels have largely been replaced by the grey squirrel in England and Wales. This is perhaps largely due to the grey squirrel's greater resistance to Parapoxvirus, a disease which fatally affects red squirrels.

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