On the Isle of Wight only red squirrels are present and, with the Solent as a barrier, it is imperative that it stays this way.
The red squirrel is the only native squirrel species in the British Isles. They have declined significantly on mainland England, mainly due to the introduction of the American grey squirrel.
On the Isle of Wight only red squirrels are present and, with the Solent as a barrier, it is imperative that it stays this way. Not only do grey squirrels outcompete reds for food and habitat but they also carry the deadly parapox virus, which is fatal to reds.
RED SQUIRREL HABITATS
The Isle of Wight has approximately nine percent of its land surface covered in woodland. A recent Forestry Commission survey indicated that there is little purely coniferous woodland and that most plantations have a broadleaved element to them. This large proportion of broadleaved and mixed woodland seems to be beneficial to the red squirrel in that food is available throughout the year through cones and tree seed. The majority of the broadleaved woodland has developed from neglected hazel coppice, where red squirrels can still find food and shelter.
About half the total woodland cover is ancient woodland (ie. in existence for at least 400 years), though half of this has been modified by felling and replanting with conifers. The rich ancient woodland resource means that the broadleaved element of the woods is diverse in species, which is highly beneficial to red squirrels. The absence of grey squirrels and deer on the Island has reduced the competition for food for the red squirrel and dormouse. The dormouse is also nationally rare, but thrives in similar habitats to the red squirrel as it depends on tree seeds and a diverse woodland understorey in coppiced woodland.
The Isle of Wight’s woodland can provide habitat for around 3,500 squirrels. Numbers fluctuate annually depending on the success or failure of the seed crop.
In the year 2000 the Forestry Commission introduced the Jigsaw Challenge on the Isle of Wight. The objective was to provide funding to plant new woodland areas to link up ancient and semi-natural woods. The new woods would eventually increase the habitat for red squirrels by linking existing areas together. A total of 219ha (540acres) was planted over a 3 year period at 22 locations. The new native woodland was planted, typically with oak(20%), ash(15%) ,wild cherry(10%), field maple (10%), scots pine (5%) and shrubs (10%) to scalloped edges using hawthorn, holly,, dogwood and spindle. Hazel (20%) and field maple(10%) forms a future underwood.
RED SQUIRREL FACTS (latin name Sciurus vulgaris)
The adult red squirrel has a body length of 20-22cm and a tail length of 17-18cm. and weighs up to 300 grams (grey squirrels are much bigger). They have characteristic eartufts and a ginger coat.
They live mainly in the tree canopy.
Squirrels nest in dreys built from twigs, leaves and moss. These can be found high up in the branches of trees close to the trunk. They build more than one drey so that they can move when the fleas become intolerable. They also use holes in trees, particularly as breeding sites. Red squirrels and their dreys are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.
They do not hibernate but bury stores of tree seeds to help them survive winter and early spring. Reds cannot digest tannins in acorns (greys can). They eat shoots, buds, fungi, leaves, flowers, insects and fruit.
Like us, they are left and right handed. They can live up to 6 years. They are good swimmers.
Squirrels start breeding in January when the females come into season. If the food supply is good, they may produce 2 litters of about 3-4 young (kittens) during the spring and summer. Kittens are born without hair or teeth and are blind for the first 3-4 weeks. Only around 1 in 6 kittens sees its first birthday. A large number are killed on the roads.
WHERE TO SEE RED SQUIRRELS
The car park and adjacent picnic site is the start of the two themed trails, taking the walker along pleasant contrasting routes through the forest. The entrance can be found approximately 1 mile west from Newport on the A3054 towards Yarmouth.
Traditional cliff top gardens with a tea room near the old village Shanklin.
Alverstone Mead Nature Reserve
The ‘Trail of Discovery’ passes through the water meadows of the Eastern Yar and woodland. The circular walk takes 40 minutes. The walk passes a 2 storey bird hide overlooking the marshes and a pond. Red squirrels are normally seen here. The trail starts at a footpath 100m south of the river bridge in Alverstone Village.
The Wight Squirrel Project is an independent charity that provides an annual newsletter, advise and leaflets to the general public free of charge. It relies on donations, fundraising events, sponsorship and grants to cover costs.
Visit the web-site www.wightsquirrels.co.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Red Squirrel merchandise is also available.
Photos by William Oliver at Alverstone Mead Hide