Frequently Asked Questions

Red squirrel questions and answers!

Here are some answered questions. If you have any other questions – please do ask and I will publish.

What do you call a squirrel nest and what does it look like?

It is called a drey.  It is about the size of a football and is made up of woodland material such as mosses, twigs, leaves and needles.  In a conifer tree, it is usually made up of needles and mosses.  In a broadleaved tree it is often made up of leaves, twigs and moss and it can be quite a work of art!  We have one in our store, borrowed from Martin Hind, Highland Council ranger and it is beautifully constructed of beech leaves and twigs.  Andy Goldsworthy eat your heart out!


Where do you find a drey?

In a pine or spruce woodland, a drey is usually three quarters way up the tree and near the trunk.  It is often in the fork of a branch and is sheltered from the wind with branches above and below it.  You know it is not a bird’s nest because a bird would be unable to fly in and out of it.  In a more mixed wood, dreys can be found at the end of branches.  This is common in hazel woodlands.

How much time does a squirrel spend in it’s drey?

In the winter, especially a cold winter like this one, they spend most of their time in their drey keeping warm.  They only come out to find food in winter, usually at the warmest time of the day at noon.  The rest of the year, time spent in dreys depends on the weather, the sunniest it is the less they seek shelter.  They are solitary animals and are usually alone in dreys, except a mother and her young.

What is their favourite food?

Hazel nuts provide lots of nurishment and are very popular.  In a conifer woodland, Norway spruce are ther favourites as the large cones provide a high amount of calories and the cones are easy to strip.  Second choice would be Scot’s pine, followed by larch, Douglas Fir and last choice is often Sitka spruce.  If you are feeding red squirrels from a feeder, try to offer a variety of goods such as hazelnuts in shells, unsalted peanuts, sunflower seeds, apples and carrots and provide fresh water if you can

Cutie with feeder

Why are red squirrel coats often almost grey in the winter?

In the winter, they have special winter coats which are thicker than summer coats and almost always darker.  This are molted in the spring when a much more red/orange coat emerges.  Lack of light means the colour is darker in the winter, same for human’s hair too!  This can make identifying red and grey squirrels more difficult.

What are red squirrel strongholds?

Strongholds are safe places for red squirrels in Scotland. 18 sites have been proposed across the country, and these strongholds coupled with grey control and the expansion of red squirrel habitat; will all help to assure a future of this iconic species.

Have a look for a full explanation at our blog – 15th July 2010


How often to they breed?

Red squirrels breed from January until September.  Sometimes they will have two litters of “kittens” in a year, although first-year females will only breed once.  Weather and food supply make a big difference to their ability to have young, as fit and well-fed females are better able to produce and feed healthy offspring.

The female squirrel only comes into season for one day.  When all the nearby males notice this, there follows a mad dash through the trees as they chase her and tussle for the right to be her mate.

Pregnancy lates between 36 and 42 days.  Litters are most often three in number.  The kittens are born blind, deaf and hairless and it takes about 9 days for their fur to start growing.  Their eyes and ears open at four weeks by which time they hava developed their bushy tail.  It takes another six weeks for them to be fully weaned and ready to go outside and explore the world.  Red squirrels can live for up to eix years, if they survive their first winter and reach adulthood.

This photo by Chris Sharratt shows a pregnant female gathering nesting material:


Chris Sharratt5

How many red squirrels are there?

The red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is Britain’s native squirrel.  It began to live here some 10,000 years ago after the last ice age ended.  For centuries red squirrels were widespread throughout the whole of mainland Britain.  Now their numbers have fallen to an extent where they live mainly in Scotland and a very few places in England and Wales.  There are about 160,000 left with 75% (120,000) found north of the border.


Here is a photo of a healthy red squirrel population in Grantown-on-Spey, in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park:



Do red squirrels hibernate?

No, squirrels are active all year round. You may not see them as often in the Winter, since they stay in their nests to conserve body heat.  Unlike dormice and bats, which put on lots of body fat and then hibernate, the squirrel keeps on going right through the winter.  During the autumn the squirrels do put on body weight – but nowhere near enough to make hibernation possible.  Only really windy, cold or wet weather keeps the squirrels tucked away in their nests, but if the weather stays bad for a few days they will have to come out and search for food anyway.

Squirrels are most active first thing in the morning – one or two hours after dawn is the best time to see them!  Once they’ve digested their last meal they will be active at other times throughout the day, but this varies.  The search for food is never ending, and this is nearly always the reason why squirrels are out and about.

Why do they bury food in the Autumn?

In the Autumn there are lots of pine seeds to eat in the pine cones.  They fall to the ground.  As the year goes by mice and other small animals will find and eat the pine seeds.  So squiirrels spend some time on the ground in the Autumn, hiding away pine cones (and acorns and other nuts too).  They scape a hole in the ground and bury a cone or some nuts.  Then they pat soil and moss back over their hidden store.
The squirrels then eat the nuts and seeds from these hidden stores, when there is less food in wintertime.  That is, if they can find the stores again!!!!Here is a photo of a squirrel looking for it’s nuts!Ice skater