Staffordshire Squirrel Project

Turning the tide on Staffordshire's red squirrels

The red squirrel is the only species of squirrel native to the UK. As a native species, the red squirrel is an integral part of our countryside and our natural heritage. Without actionable conservation, they could be extinct throughout England within the next 10 years.

The Staffordshire Squirrel Project (SSP), led by Wild Staffordshire, has been focusing on educating & raising awareness of the Red Squirrel situation in the British Isles and helping the general public become involved in saving this adorable native species since 2017.

SSP, is made up of a group of volunteers from across the regions, passionate about Red Squirrel conservation, with many years of experience and offering a varied range of expertise.

About Red Squirrels

The red squirrel is the only species of squirrel native to the UK. As a native species, the red squirrel is an integral part of our countryside and our natural heritage.

It is often thought that red squirrels need to live in conifers, mainly after the reds took refuge in the conifer plantations because it is a habitat not preferred by the grey.

However, red squirrels can live in most rural, suburban and even some urban habitats as long as there are no threats from grey squirrels.

How many are there? Current population estimates of red squirrels stand at approximately 138,000 throughout the UK. Of that it is estimated that approximately 120,000 are in Scotland, 3,000 in Wales and 15,000 in England.

Red squirrels are mainly dispersed in England throughout the north with Kielder Forest, Northumberland supporting around 60% of the total population.

However, it is also thought that there could be as many as 2.5 million grey squirrels in the UK. As there is no current method of comprehensively surveying grey squirrels, this could be a considerable underestimation.

Red or Grey? Red squirrels can be distinguished from grey squirrels in a number of ways. Surprisingly, fur colour is not definitive as both species can have a wide variation in their coats.

Coat colour can vary both geographically (i.e squirrels in different regions) and seasonally, as squirrels moult their body fur twice a year. The moult that occurs in the spring starts on the head and moves along the body, whereas the sequence in reverse in the autumn. 

One of the most obvious distinguishing factors is size. Red squirrels weigh between 270-360g and with a head and body length of 19-23cm. Grey squirrels are much larger, typically weighing between 400-720g with a head and body length of 25-30cm

Red squirrels are well known for having tufts on their ears. These tufts are present for most of the year but are moulted in late summer and regrow in early autumn. They are most prominent in the winter months. Grey squirrels never have ear tufts.

Another way to tell the difference between the species is to look at the tail. The hair on a grey squirrels tail is banded with different colours and the white tips on the tail create a ‘halo’ effect. Although red squirrels may have varying colour tails the hair will all be one colour.

Red Squirrel Threats

Although red squirrel populations are healthy on mainland Europe, the red squirrel is currently suffering major decline.

Numbers in the UK have fallen from a one-time high thought to be around 3.5 million, to a current estimated population of around 120,000. The population in England is thought to be as low as 15,000. 

Predators, viruses and changes to the landscape all pose threats to our native red squirrel but the introduction of the grey squirrel from America is the main reason behind the sharp decline.

Grey squirrels were first introduced to England from North America in 1876 as an ornamental species to populate the grounds of stately homes. Around 30 separate introductions occurred until 1930 when the damage caused by the grey squirrel was recognised and it was made illegal to release a grey squirrel to the wild. Grey squirrels have rapidly spread and colonised much of mainland England with detriment to our native red squirrel.

Grey squirrels evolved on the eastern seaboard of America in oak and hickory forests. As a result, they have developed a resistance to a chemical called tannin, which is found in seeds such as acorns. Unripe acorns are particularly rich in tannins but are a high-energy food source.

Red squirrels find tannins unpalatable, so grey squirrels can decimate crops of acorns before they ripen and become a viable food source for reds.

Greys also raid caches (stores) of seeds that red squirrels have buried. The combination of grey squirrels achieving higher densities, with a higher daily food requirement, and the ability to exploit tannin-rich seeds, provides grey squirrels with a very strong ‘competitive advantage’ over reds in mixed and broadleaf woodland.

Failure to gain enough food prevents female reds from reproducing, and existing members of the population can gradually starve.

Through the effects of competition alone, greys will replace reds well within 10 years in this habitat type.

The most significant threat associated with grey squirrels is the spread and transmission of a disease called squirrelpox virus (SQPV).

It can take only one grey squirrel to introduce this virus to a local population of red squirrels and then the virus can spread throughout the reds with devastating effect. Where a grey squirrel introduces SQPV, red squirrel population decline has been observed.

Red squirrel on hindlegs

Our Work

Our work to save our native Red Squirrel covers a huge array of tasks, studies and tactics.

Communication

As a rewilding communicator, Wild Staffordshire is at the forefront of Red Squirrel communication.

Through the Staffordshire Squirrel Project, in partnership with British Red Squirrel and Red Squirrel South West, we developed and funded the Turning The Tide film seen above.

The film highlights to ecological cascade of non-native invasive species such as the Grey Squirrel and how the Grey issues is far bigger than just about saving our Red Squirrels.

We continue to communicate across the country about the plight of Red Squirrels and the efforts required to ensure Red Squirrel conservation is a success.

Education for future generations

Introduce red squirrel conservation to your classes with the Red Squirrel Education Pack.

The Red Squirrel Education Pack has been created to raise awareness of the plight of the native British squirrel and of the conservation efforts to help them regenerate. Suitable for KS2 classes, the Red Squirrel Education Pack is a cross-curricular resource designed to last a teacher a half-term with exciting and stimulating activities in Science, Mathematics, Geography, Home Economics, English, Music, Art, Public Speaking and Drama.

The Red Squirrel Education Pack was written by Olivia Kennaway who grew up at Escot Park in Devon where there is a Red Squirrel Enclosure for conservation purposes. Olivia created the Red Squirrel Education Pack initially for her final major project in her Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Degree; the striking photography of red squirrels in the pack is all her own work.

Visit our Schools for Wildlife Project to get your School Red Squirrel aware!

Corridors and woodland protection

Staffordshire border’s two huge Red Squirrel conservation forums, to the North West – Cheshire, which is already receiving sightings of Red Squirrels and to the East – the National Forest has one of the biggest efforts nationwide in operation.

Meaning Staffordshire becomes an integral part of the overall spread of Red Squirrels. Without a buffer zone for both of these bordering conservation schemes, the spread of Red Squirrels could be halted from ever spreading across the Midlands and Southern regions of England.

The Staffordshire Squirrel Project (SSP) works with landowners to ensure we can protect fragile woodland ecosystems from the damage caused by the non-native invasive Grey Squirrel.

If you are in the Staffordshire area and would like to join our grey control network or need help/support with your population please email: squirrels@wildstaffordshire.com.

Returning Red Squirrels to Staffordshire

The long vision for the Staffordshire Squirrel Project is to see the natural return of Red Squirrels to our living landscapes, whilst ancient woodland ecosystems are protected from the invasive grey.

But did you know we’ve already returned Red Squirrels to Staffordshire? Thanks to a long term breeding effort and conservation effort, you can now see Red Squirrels at the newly opened Red Squirrel walkthrough enclosure part of Peak Wildlife Park

Walkthrough enclosures are a vital part of Red Squirrel conservation. They allow for people to understand the beauty of our native species, be used for educate, and are key to ecological and biological research. They are also allowing drey-bred squirrels to reared part of wild release schemes.

Although, our long-term vision is to see the natural return of Reds to Staffordshire by creating wildlife corridors for them to naturally move in to, This first return is one of many planned, which are supported by the SSP, for our county.

Red squirrel in the forest
squirrel on branch
Red squirrel in the forest

Get Involved

The Staffordshire Squirrel Project (SSP) has a focus on educating & raising awareness of the Red Squirrel situation in the British Isles and helping the general public become involved in saving this adorable native species. SSP, is made up of a group of volunteers from across the regions, passionate about Red Squirrel conservation and grey control, with many years of experience and offering a varied range of expertise.

If you would like to volunteer your time to help red squirrel conservation then please contact us at squirrels@wildstaffordshire.com.

Whether this is fundraising on behalf of SSP, joining our committee, woodland and grey squirrel management, or simply sending us records, we rely heavily on our amazing volunteers and appreciate your help no matter how big or small!

Red squirrel alerted
Red squirrel in the forest

Project Partners

The Staffordshire Squirrel Project (SSP) is committed to collaborating with a wide range of projects, groups and businesses to bring clarity and consistency to our vision of protecting woodlands, land and seeing the long-term vision of seeing the return of Red Squirrels to our county. We are proud to have the honour of being able to work with the organisations below who all help in different ways to make our goals of combined conservation a success. If you, your project or business would like to join our supporter’s community, please contact us.

British Red Squirrel has a focus on raising awareness of the squirrel situation in the British Isles and helping the general public become involved in saving the species.

Brocock is supporting Staffordshire Squirrel Project with rifles for grey squirrel control and access to publicity at major shooting shows and magazine exposure.