Red squirrels are one of the 81 species of tree squirrels found across the world. Red squirrels are well adapted to living in woodland habitats having large eyes and long hind limbs adapted for leaping. The male and female are approximately the same size. Fur colour can vary quite a bit between animals from a dark brown to a light chestnut on the back and from white to cream on the throat and chest. Red squirrels moult twice a year although only shed their characteristic ear tuffs once a year. Tuffs are often absent during these summer months and are replaced in the late summer and autumn.


Red squirrels spend the majority of their lives in trees and rely on the fruit of trees and plants as their primary source of food, e.g. hazelnuts. The preferred habitat of the red squirrel is mixed broadleaved woodlands where there is high species diversity and where food is plentiful. Although there are many suitable broadleaved woodlands within Fermanagh, red squirrels are becoming increasingly restricted to coniferous plantations due to competition from the grey squirrel. These plantations are now essentially the last refuge for the red squirrel-only populations and are therefore the target area for the conservation objectives and efforts of the FRSG.


The diet of the red squirrel consists primarily of seeds and nuts from trees and plants. These form a major component of the diet in autumn and winter when they are plentiful. However, in late spring and summer when the primary food source is scarce the diet is supplement with plant shoot and bulbs, insects and berries. ‘Fungi can be an important food source in years when seeds are scarce. Squirrels get their water from either the food the eat or from dew although they have been observed drinking water from pools and streams during dry, summer weather.

Red squirrels are ‘scatter hoarders’ which essentially means that the store seeds and other food stuffs in different locations. They spend a lot of time in the autumn caching food, burrowing holes just below the soil surface or leaf litter. This stored food is essential to get them through spells of harsh weather or when food is in short supply.’


The nest of a red squirrel is known as a ‘Drey’ and is found about two-thirds of the way up a tree at a fork between a branch and the main trunk. The drey is made up of twigs that are carefully built to form a rounded nest about the size of a football and the inside is lined with moss and fur. A drey can be differentiated from a bird’s nest because dreys are tight to the trunk and only about two-thirds of the way up and the twigs also tend to have the leaves still attached. Conversely, a bird’s nest is towards the top of the tree and further out on the branches and the twigs tend to be leafless. Red squirrels also use open platforms of twigs and softer material, or sheltered, disused bird nests for resting during summer months.

Red squirrels tend to use more than one drey at any given time. Individuals have been recorded as using up to eight dreys over the period of a day taking-in their rest and sleep periods. This number is quite high though with the average being used by an individual being three. Red squirrels will sometimes live together in dreys during the winter. Counting the number of dreys present over a specific area can be used to give an indication of the number of squirrels present and is a technique used by ecologists and researchers.

Breeding season and life cycle

The breeding season for squirrels starts in January with mating chases. Young squirrels, known as kittens, are born hairless, blind and deaf in March. If a female squirrel finds enough food to improve condition a second litter may be born in July/August. Each litter can have between 3 and four kittens. The kittens are weaned after 10 weeks and will disperse in either the autumn or the following spring.

The availability of food has a big influence on the survival of both adults and young red squirrels. Survival rates for juveniles getting through their first winter is estimated to be between 15-25%, improving in subsequent years. The average life expectancy of a red squirrel is three to four years in the wild although they can live as long as six or seven years.

A range of predators prey on red squirrels and include the domestic cat, pine martens, foxes and the stoat. Large raptors such as goshawks can also take red squirrels. However, none of these species plays a significant role in the continuing decline the red squirre populations.


Squirrels do have a home range although the size of this will vary, depending on the habitat type and therefore availability of food and the season. Neither the male or female are territorial and their ranges will overlap and this also applies to other males and females. Some work has shown that older females may exclude other individuals from their nest area during breeding season. The range sizes have been estimated to be from 2.8 and 6.8 hectares (7 to 16.8 acres) for deciduous woodland and between 7 and 23 hectares (17.2 to 56.8 acres) for conifer forests. Summer ranges also tend to be larger than the winter ranges.


All-Ireland Red Squirrel Species Action Plan
‘Red Squirrels: Naturally Scottish’. 2010. Scottish Natural Heritage, Peter Lurz
‘Squirrels’. 1987. Whittet Books, Jessica Holm.

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