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The Red Squirrel’s struggle against the Grey

Posted in Animals, Conservation, Nature, Wildlife on Thursday, 29 September 2011

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This edited article about animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 827 published on 19 November 1977.

Red squirrel, picture, image, illustration

The vanishing Red Squirrel by R B Davis

Of all the small animals native to Britain, none is more attractive than the red squirrel, whether it is sitting nibbling a nut held in its “hands” or making flying leaps from branch to branch on a tree.

Because its teeth are designed for gnawing, the squirrel is classed by zoologists as a rodent. It belongs to the same family as mice, rats and rabbits. But it is one of the few rodents that is more at home in a tree than on the ground.

When seen sitting with its long, bushy tail curved over its back, the squirrel appears to be quite a large and portly animal. Actually it is small, with a rather thin body.

An adult red squirrel measures about 400 mm. (16 in.) from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail. The bushy tail makes up about half this length.

The hind legs are considerably longer than the front ones and are used like those of a rabbit as it bounds along the ground. Each hind paw has five toes with strong curved claws specially designed for climbing trees.

The front paws, which the animal uses like hands, have four delicate fingers and a little stub of a thumb. The palms of the paws have a thin coat of fine hair. This prevents skidding when the animal runs up and down tree trunks.

In the autumn, the red squirrel changes its summer coat of reddish-brown to its winter suit of greyish-brown, and grows tufts of hair from its tiny ears, making them appear much bigger than they really are.

Red squirrels are harmless creatures and feed mostly on nuts and acorns. The same cannot be said of their relatives, the grey squirrels.

Grey squirrels are native to North America and were introduced into Britain about 100 years ago. Within a few years, they had so increased that they outnumbered the native red squirrels. They took overall the red squirrels’ nesting places and ate all their food. This happened to such an extent that the red squirrels were nearly wiped out.

Grey squirrels quickly established themselves as the gangsters of the woodlands. They do enormous damage to the trees by nibbling the bark, raid orchards and crops and make murderous attacks on poultry farms to steal eggs and kill chicks.

Their criminal activities are so serious that laws have been passed classing them as vermin. Despite their bad reputation, grey squirrels are just as attractive as the red variety. They are larger and heavier, weighing about 1¬Ω kilograms and measuring 500 mm. (20 in.) from nose to tail-tip. Their soft, silver-grey fur sometimes has light-brown markings.

Both red and grey squirrels set up house in nests called dreys. In these, the young are born in March or April. The nest is made of twigs, moss and strips of bark and is lined inside with dry leaves.

Although squirrels do not hibernate in winter, they are less active in the cold weather and spend a good deal of time asleep. They do not even venture too far for food but live on stores of nuts they collect in the late summer.

There is some mystery as to the origin of the name “squirrel”. Country people say that it comes from the animal’s piercing shriek of skee-ow-ow. However, scholars tell us that its origin is in the Greek word skiouros, which means “shadow tail”.

Whether they are red or grey, squirrels are undoubtedly among the most attractive animals in the busy world of the woodlands.

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