Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Sciurus vulgaris – red squirrel

Sciurus vulgaris

Sciurus vulgaris L.1758
Family: Sciuridae

The red squirrel is believed to have been present in Ireland since the end of the last Ice Age. During the 1700s it is thought to have become extinct in Ireland; whether this was due to disease, hunting or loss of habitat, is not known. During the early 1800s, red squirrels were reintroduced to Ireland from Britain and by the early 1900s were present in all counties in Ireland, both north and south. The population continued to increase for a short time, then began to decline rapidly across the British Isles – possibly due to disease. Grey squirrels are currently a major threat to the survival of the red squirrel population.

In brief

  • Found throughout Northern Ireland in suitable habitat

  • Prefers woodland habitat – especially coniferous woodland

  • Active all year round

  • Listed as a UK Priority Species

  • Main threats to the population are disease, loss of habitat and competition from grey squirrels.

Species description
Squirrels are easily recognised by their distinctive body shape and bushy tail. The red squirrel is a smaller and more delicate animal than the grey squirrel. Coat colour varies in both species and can cause some confusion in identification. Red squirrels are generally brown, but the shade can range from chestnut right through to grey-brown. The belly fur is white. During the summer, the tail fur fades to a pale cream colour and the ear tufts are more or less absent. In winter, the body and tail fur is thick and dense and the red squirrel's long dark ear tufts are very noticeable. Grey squirrels do not have ear tufts. Squirrels are active during the day; red squirrels are more likely to be seen high up in the tree canopy, while grey squirrels are often seen feeding on the ground.

Life cycle
Red squirrels usually give birth twice a year, once in spring and again in summer. Litter size varies but the average number of young (kittens) produced per litter is three. After mating, the female builds a nest (drey) out of twigs and leaves and lines it with grass and moss. The young are born, bald and blind, but grow quickly and are weaned after nine weeks. Red squirrels eat a variety of seeds, nuts, fungi, bark, buds and berries. In late summer and autumn when food is plentiful they hide stashes of seeds and nuts on the ground – much of which is probably eaten by grey squirrels who spend more time foraging on the ground, especially in winter. Squirrels do not hibernate; in very cold weather they will stay in their nests for a day or two, but they cannot survive for longer periods without food.

Similar species
Grey squirrels often have chestnut markings on the face, paws and hips in the summer and can be mistaken for red squirrels.

How to see this species
Red squirrels can be seen in all counties in Northern Ireland. They are more likely to be seen high up in the trees in coniferous forest. Red squirrels can be found at various National Trust properties such as Florence Court, Colin Glen and Mount Stewart.

Current status
Coniferous woodland is found scattered throughout Northern Ireland, usually in upland areas and is made up of mainly Sitka spruce, Norway spruce and lodgepole pine. Such woodland provides a refuge for the red squirrel and is critical to the speciesí survival. The 2003 QUB report on the distribution of red squirrels in Northern Ireland concluded that the areas with the largest number of red squirrel only (that is, no greys) sites in Northern Ireland is within north-east Antrim. Red squirrels are also still present throughout Fermanagh, Tyrone and Londonderry, but grey squirrels are also widespread in these areas.

  • Protected at all times in Northern Ireland by Schedule 5 and 6 of the Wildlife (N. Ireland) Order 1985

  • Listed in Annex III of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention)

  • Classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List 2004.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • Listed as a UK Priority Species.

Over the last 50 years the red squirrel population has declined rapidly across Britain and Ireland.

Threats/Causes of decline

  • Grey squirrels.

    Introduced into County Longford in 1911, the grey squirrel has since successfully colonised most central and eastern counties of southern Ireland and much of Northern Ireland, with the exception of parts of County Antrim.
    As the grey squirrel expands its range, it replaces the red squirrel especially in deciduous woodland. Grey squirrels seem to be better adapted to live in deciduous woodland – supplementary feeding can help the red squirrel survive in areas where both species are present. Red squirrels appear to be able to compete more successfully with grey squirrels in coniferous woodland and are less likely to be displaced.

  • Disease.

    Red squirrels are susceptible to a potentially fatal viral disease – Parapox virus. Grey squirrels can carry and spread the disease but appear to be unaffected by it. At present, the disease does not seem to be affecting the red squirrel population in Northern Ireland.

Conservation of this species

Current action
The UK Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation – Action Plan for Northern Ireland was produced in 2000, and there is a UK Species Action Plan which was published in 1995.

  • A Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum (NISF) has been established to bring together statutory and non-statutory organisations as well as representatives of country parks and local volunteer organisations dedicated to protecting the red squirrel in Northern Ireland

  • Implementation of the Northern Ireland habitat action plans for Oakwoods, Mixed Ashwoods and Parkland

  • Sustainable Forestry Operations Grants are available for the control of grey squirrels. For more information contact Forest Service, Tel: 028 9052 4466.

Proposed objectives/actions

  • Maintain existing viable red squirrel populations

  • Expand existing viable red squirrel population

  • Control grey squirrel populations, where appropriate

  • Re-establish red squirrel populations, where appropriate.

What you can do
Report red squirrel sightings to CEDaR, National Museums Northern Ireland, 153 Bangor Road, Cultra, Co. Down, BT18 0EU, Tel: 028 9039 5264, [at]

If you find a dead red squirrel please contact the EHS Wildlife Officer, Tel: 028 9054 6558.

Further information

UK Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation – Action Plan for Northern Ireland

UK Species Action Plan for Red Squirrel

Red squirrels in Northern Ireland EHS education pack

Forest Service – Red Squirrels

Northern Ireland Habitat Action Plans

Recent changes in the distribution of Red Squirrels in Northern Ireland

Hayden, T. & Harrington, R. (2000). Exploring Irish Mammals.

Text written by:
Angela Ross, Curator of Vertebrates, Ulster Museum

iNaturalist: Species account : iNaturalist World Species Observations database