Helping red squirrels
If you are lucky enough to have red squirrels visiting your garden there are some actions you can take to make life a bit easier for them. By providing a little extra food, planting some red squirrel-friendly shrubs and reporting any squirrel activity in your garden you can help support your local squirrel population.
When to feed
Before deciding to feed your squirrels, you should address a few simple issues. The main factor to consider is the presence of grey squirrels – if you also have grey squirrels visiting your garden, feeding red squirrels could bring the two species into contact and put the red squirrel at risk of catching squirrelpox virus, which is lethal to them. So if you do have grey squirrels visiting your garden, unfortunately you should not put out food for, or attempt to attract, red squirrels.
The second factor to consider is access to your garden. If a busy road separates you from nearby red squirrel habitat, attracting squirrels into your garden could put them at risk of being run over. It may be better to let them find their own food naturally rather than encouraging them to cross a busy road.
If neither of these is an issue, then you can feed your squirrels all year round. The summer months can be one of the hardest times for red squirrels to find food, as the spring shoots and buds are gone but the autumn berries and seeds haven’t arrived yet, so keeping a ready supply of food all year round can help red squirrels.
What to feed
The first thing to remember is that you are supplementing your red squirrels’ diet, not replacing their natural food sources. Only put out small amounts of food every few days to avoid squirrels becoming dependent on this, or artificially increasing squirrel numbers beyond what the local habitats (woods) can naturally support.
You can provide a wide range of nuts and seeds, and really the greater the variety the better. Hazelnuts are a favourite, especially in their shells, but sweet chestnuts, sunflower seeds and pine nuts are other good options.
If you are using peanuts ensure they are aflatoxin-free, and only use them as part of a varied diet as they can lead to a calcium deficiency. Fruits such as apples and carrots can be used to add some vitamins, and extra calcium can be provided through bone meal or a cuttlefish bone.
How to feed
Feeding stations should ideally be positioned in an area that offers a quick escape route - around 5-6 feet up a tree is a great location for a feeding station, but close to a high wall is another option. Keeping feeders off the ground reduces the risk of cat predation. If you know where the squirrels enter your garden, try to place a feeder along their typical route; don't encourage them to cross open ground, where they are more exposed to cats.
There are a number of squirrel feeders available for purchase, or you can have a go at building your own using this template. Any uneaten food should be removed before a feeder is restocked, and feeders should be regularly cleaned using one of the same disinfectants you would use on a bird feeder. Disease is a major concern for red squirrels and regularly cleaning and disinfecting your feeder will help secure against this threat.
Creating a natural food source
A good way to help the red squirrels in your garden is to plant shrubs or trees that will provide a natural food source. A wide range of plants can be planted that will benefit red squirrels, including brambles, raspberry, dog rose, guelder rose, wild cherry, bird cherry, bullace and crab apple. Thorny plants can also double as a cat deterrent, helping reduce predation.
To really transform your garden into a red squirrel paradise, you could create your own mini wildlife sanctuary. Plant some of the ‘red squirrel friendly’ shrubs listed above, let the grass grow wild and provide some nice hiding places like rocks and logs – these will decay and provide fungi for the red squirrels to eat, too. This sanctuary could be your whole garden or just a corner, and will be great for other kinds of wildlife as well as squirrels.
Record and report
Finally, you can help keep track of Northern Ireland's red squirrel population by reporting any sightings, whether in your garden or further afield.