Identification

Grey squirrels are familiar rodents with a grey bushy tail and body, except for white underparts and a small amount of russet colouring. Don’t confuse grey squirrels with the native red squirrel, which is red-brown all over except for a white patch on its chest, and which has tufts on its ears in winter. The red squirrel has suffered steep declines as a result of the spread of the grey squirrel, which was introduced to this country in the late nineteenth century. Grey squirrels have either out-competed red squirrels for food and habitat, or have carried and spread the squirrel pox virus, which is lethal to red squirrels.

Size

Body ranges from 23-30cm (9-12in). The tail is about 14cm (5 1/2in) long.

Distribution

Grey squirrels have spread throughout most of mainland Britain although not to central and north Scotland. Only a few records in Northern Ireland.

Status

This species is an invasive non-native and does not have any conservation status nor protection measures.

Habitat preference

Woodland is the best habitat for grey squirrels as it provides abundant of food and shelter. Home for the squirrel is either a nest called a drey, hidden in the high branches, or a den in a hollow tree. These provide protection from the weather and a place to rear their young.

Grey squirrels can adapt to the open and are commonly found in urban parks and gardens, collecting much of their food from the ground.

Where to find them in the garden

As woodland is their preferred habitat, you are most likely to see squirrels in trees, or even travelling along high sufaces (e.g. garage roofs). They are quite likely to be seen at bird tables and feeders as well.

Role in the garden

Squirrels are opportunist feeders. Their diet varies depending on the season and what is available. They eat catkins, flowers, rosehips, fungi, shoots, bulbs, bark and may even rob nests in spring, taking both eggs and young birds. However, their most important natural food is tree seeds. Squirrels eat them as they ripen or store them for hard times, burying them just below the surface of the soil in numerous small caches.

Winter is usually a time of plenty, providing there has been a good autumn nut crop, so squirrels have no need to hibernate.

Squirrels can present some problems in the garden and further afield. For example:

  • Squirrels’ propensity to strip bark from trees is damaging, particularly if they strip a ring round the whole tree, as this will kill the tree.
  • They are attracted to bird tables and feeders
  • They may eat your bulbs.
  • They may get in through eaves and inhabit the loft – the main danger is of them chewing through electric cable.
  • Unfortunately, because they eat the same food as red squirrels and use the same types of habitat, they have out-competed red squirrels in many locations. Where red squirrels are still found, therefore, there is sometimes a need to control the numbers of grey squirrels to allow the reds to continue in existence.