Page Editor: Norman Jackson

Page last Reviewed: 8 October 2018

Red Squirrels

No Red Squirrels!

Within a few years this could be a depressing fact in this valley. Our beautiful little Red Squirrels are seriously under threat on two fronts. Now that Grey Squirrels have arrived in the valley and are becoming established, they not only compete for food sources but can carry the Squirrelpox Virus which is deadly to the Red Squirrel. It can take as little as 15 years from the arrival of Greys in an area, to the disappearance of the Red's - and we've had Grey's for over 10 years. To see maps of the dramatic changes in distribution since 1948 Click Here.

We are on the Front Line

Cumbria and Northumberland are very much on the front line of the battle to stop the onslaught of the Grey Squirrel. A number of, quite small reserves have been established across the country and these are surrounded by buffer zones where Grey Squirrels are actively controlled. The Cumbrian reserves are at Whinlatter, Thirlmere, Greystoke and Whinfell.

Report Sightings of Grey Squirrels

Measures are in place to control the Grey Squirrels but the Rangers who undertake this work need to know where they are. So, whether you are local or a visitor, if you see a Grey Squirrel, please report the sighting as soon as possible. Give details of the date, time and describe the location as accurately as possible (a grid reference is helpful but not essential).

For the Patterdale and Ullswater area, please telephone Justin Grice – Red Squirrel Ranger - 07388 831150


When a red squirrel becomes infected it is usually fatal. The symptoms are very similar to miximatosis found in rabbits. The squirrel suffers pussy weeping sores has a loss of coordination and vision, it becomes disorientated and lethargic. Death usually follows about two weeks later.

Help Prevent the Spread of Squirrelpox

Bird and squirrel feeders may be a transmission point for squirrelpox virus and other diseases that affect red squirrels. To reduce the risk of disease, please ensure you do not leave old food in feeders and regularly clean your feeders with a pet-safe disinfectant such as Trigene or Virkon S which can be bought from WCF (opposite Morrisons) or from Relphs.

Squirrel Dreys

Red squirrels make fairly tidy 'nests' or dreys with twigs and particularly leaves. These are spherical in shape and about the size of a football. They will make several dreys in different parts of their territory and will have a separate breeding drey. Grey squirrel dreys are more haphazard and untidy. From the ground, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a drey and a large bird's nest (e.g. rook). However, squirrels will build their dreys close in to the tree trunk, out of the wind, whereas a bird’s nest will be further out in the branches. The obvious way to confirm either way is to see the squirrels coming and going!

Food Sources

Red Squirrels historically adapted to exploit mixed broadleaf habitat where there are plenty of large seeds (nuts) to eat (their primary food source) although they can live in any type of woodland. They also eat wild fruit, berries, plant shoots, fungi and even insects and occasionally bird eggs.

As the larger Grey Squirrels move into an area, they need the larger seeds from the broadleaf habitat (such as acorns), this displaces the Red Squirrels into conifer habitats where they can survive adequately on the smaller conifer seeds.

Swimming Squirrel

Passengers on board an Ullswater Steamer in November 2007, saw a red squirrel swimming at least 270m from the shore and going strong. However, the animal readily accepted a lift on the boat and returned to shore unscathed. For pictures and more details on this story read the BBC report click here

More Information

More detailed information and some scientific papers can be obtained through these sites:

Penrith & District Red Squirrel Group

Squirrel Web

Red Squirrels in Southern Scotland

Save our Squirrels

Can you tell the difference?

Colour is not the most reliable form of identification since not all 'Reds' are red and not all 'Greys' are grey). The best features to look for are size, the ears and the tail.

Red Squirrels are considerably smaller and most adults have long tufts to their ears (except when moulting in Autumn). The bushy tail is usually one colour but can have darker sections.

Grey Squirrels have a more stocky build and have rounded 'mouse-like' ears. The tail has a white edge giving a halo effect.