Most days we're lucky to be treated to an aerial display from any of the four red squirrels that currently include our garden within their territory. Just babies, they have become very confident having had the garden to themselves throughout lockdown. Neither males nor females are territorial but Rusty, on the nut dispenser, is beginning to flex his muscles and looks like he'll be staking his claim for top of the social hierarchy!
If a red squirrel survives its first winter the life expectancy is three years on average. Numbers have stabilised in recent years after a catastrophic population decline following the introduction of its grey cousin from North America in 1876. The grey squirrel is able to outcompete for food and living space but also carries a virus called squirrelpox which is lethal to reds but not greys.
There are estimated to be only 160,000 red squirrels remaining in the UK, 75% of which are in Scotland, and the Cairngorm National Park is a key area because of its abundance of coniferous woods. Without concerted conservation efforts to halt the spread of the grey squirrel, red squirrels could disappear from Scotland within our lifetime. The Scottish Government have taken action through their Biodiversity Strategy which priorities 32 species, including the red squirrel, on a Species Action Framework.
We're fortunate to have a row of mature pine trees in the garden which produce an abundant crop of cones every year and you regularly find them nibbled to resemble an apple core - a sure sign of squirrels! As winter approaches they begin to hoard food in holes just under the surface of the ground or in holes in trees. Red squirrels don't hibernate so this food is very important to them through periods of bad weather or food shortage. They have a varied diet and as well as pine seeds they'll eats fruits including rose hips, raspberries and brambles (blackberries) and it's not unusual to see mushrooms hanging out to dry on the branches of trees before they're added to their hoard!
Thankfully they're also partial to peanuts which keeps them coming back to our dispensers - giving us hours of entertainment!