Startled by the damp seeping through my cosy socks, the weather outside cool and cheerless, I wish I could hibernate.
I came across an article on red squirrels (sciurus vulgaris), Ireland’s only native squirrel, and was surprised to find out that they don’t hibernate, and have in fact found their own ways of adapting to the Irish climate, remaining active throughout winter. When the weather’s particularly bad and the food more scarce, they resist the siesta urge, and chill in their dreys – squirrel nests – for days, conserving energy like seasoned couch potatoes.
Parks and green spaces are crucial habitats for the red squirrel, whose conservation hinges on understanding its urban presence. The elusive diurnal red squirrel, ear tufts and bushy tail, is undermined by grey squirrels. Their beauty lies in their emotions, fleeting, changing in their faces, eyes. Mobile.
As the reds play hide-and-seek with humans, concealing themselves on tree trunks or forest floors, the brazen greys boldly strut their food on the ground, seemingly unafraid. Understanding these behavioural distinctions is pivotal for crafting effective strategies to coexist with these urban-dwelling species, ensuring the preservation of the native red squirrels against the encroaching dominance of their grey counterparts.
’Tis varied by the Dream
Of what they do outside—
Where Squirrels play—and Berries die—
And Hemlocks—bow—to God—
Emily Dickinson – Doom is the House without the Door
New research is throwing shade on the idea that non-native conifer plantations are new hangout spots for these endangered furry fellas, who are already dealing with their grey cousins crashing their gaff. Scientists suggest that favouring non-native conifer setups might actually be bad news for our tail-flipping friends, lords of the nuts.
Despite having roots in Ireland since before the last ice age, the red squirrel is facing eviction from its own woodland crib, thanks to those pesky grey invaders. With a 20 percent decline over the past century and half of that happening in the last ten years, there’s a real concern we might be waving goodbye to red squirrels. These red squirrels seem to need good old-fashioned native woodland vibes if they’re going to stick around.
From warm red-brown in summer to a winter chic dark chocolate-brown with grey accents, they tend to set up camp in large patches of native conifer forest, but they’ll also make do with deciduous woodland if the greys aren’t hogging the space. These little tree-dwellers are all about the seeds hiding in pine and spruce cones. You’ll know you’re in red squirrel territory when the forest floor is adorned with gnawed pine-cones, resembling discarded apple cores.
The red squirrel, a fungivore, plays a crucial role in helping native woodlands grow strong, spreading the spores of the mycorrhizal fungi that trees rely on for healthy growth and disease resistance.
They are able to see that the night isn’t dark at all, it’s very beautiful in fact, and they start to love it.
Habitat loss is pushing these red squirrels out of their cosy homes. Think of it as a way of tackling the housing crisis, if not for ourselves, then at least for our fluffy bushy tailed friends. Let’s band together and make sure our red squirrels don’t end up in a woodland version of a cramped, shoddy, Celtic-Tiger apartment. Have a look on Green Sod Ireland’s website to see how you can support local initiatives promoting habitat creation and preservation.
The Urban Squirrel Survey – National Biodiversity Data Centre. (s. d.). National Biodiversity Data Centre. https://biodiversityireland.ie/surveys/the-urban-squirrel-survey/
O’Sullivan, K. (2022). Red squirrels’ battle for survival hindered by non-native conifers. The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/red-squirrels-battle-for-survival-hindered-by-non-native-conifers-1.4774120
Jones, C. (2014). Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). Ireland’s Wildlife. https://irelandswildlife.com/red-squirrel-sciurus-vulgaris/
Doom is the House Without the Door by Emily Dickinson. (s. d.). All Poetry. https://allpoetry.com/Doom-is-the-House-without-the-Door
Photos by Rory MacCanna: https://www.flickr.com/people/maccannarory/