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Red Squirrels in Britain

Updated on September 22, 2015

There's More Than One Red Squirrel

You may not know that there's a type of Red Squirrel found in Europe, including the British Isles, which is a separate species to the one found in the USA and Canada. Technically, they have different Latin names and seem to have quite different characters. This Eurasian Red Squirrel is a shy animal, living in woodland. Although I've seldom seen it in the flesh, I have always loved the Red Squirrel found in Britain.

Sadly, it has been badly hit by the introduction of the grey squirrel from North America, which is why there are very few in England today. The majority of these squirrels live in the Scottish Highlands, with a few in some isolated pockets in England, or on islands such as the Isle of Wight.

Photo Credit: Peter G Trimming via Compfight cc.(All photos by Peter G Trimming shown in this article have the same Creative Commons license.)

Uneasy Truce by Peter G Trimming
Uneasy Truce by Peter G Trimming | Source

This piece explores the place of the red squirrel in British literature and culture, as well as explaining why they are one of my favourite mammals, and showing some of the efforts being made to reverse their decline. And in the process, it features some excellent photographs by Peter G Trimming and other photographers.

Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter
Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter | Source

Red Squirrels as Characters

Squirrel Nutkin, Bob Bushtail and Tufty

Squirrel Nutkin is the most famous Red Squirrel character in children's books, the main character of one of Beatrix Potter's tales.

However, I didn't come across her books as a child, so that's not how I first learned about Red Squirrels. Instead, I had a Ladybird Book featuring a story told in rhyme, called 'Bob Bushtail's Adventure'.

Bob Bushtail's adventure illustrated by Anguisine Jeanne MacGregor
Bob Bushtail's adventure illustrated by Anguisine Jeanne MacGregor | Source

Bob is a squirrel who plays in the woods with his siblings but gets lost and has to spend all night alone, feeling very sorry for himself. This little tale was illustrated by Angusine Jeanne MacGregor, who illustrated many Ladybird Books from the 1940s onwards, and was a book that saw many new editions up until the mid 1970s. Her illustrations were used later for a new book, 'The Three Little Squirrels', published in the US in the late '70s with different text by Roberta Miller.

(To check availability of Bobbie Bushtail's Adventure on Amazon, click here.)

Tufty on YouTube

The other Red Squirrel in my childhood world was the TV character, Tufty, used to promote the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Tufty taught road safety to many generations of children. There are plenty of videos on YouTube about him, as you can see below.

Here's one of the later road safety films about Tufty, narrated by Bernard Cribbins, whom you may have come across in some of David Tennant's Doctor Who stories.

You can see some of these short films on YouTube, but I think the original black and white cartoons were better than these later colour stop-motion animation films, which I now find a bit patronising. The black and white ones didn't come over like that but, unfortunately, they are no longer available on YouTube.

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (Peter Rabbit)
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (Peter Rabbit)

The authorised version from Warne, in the original facsimilie edition with a white cover. Hardback, and the original small size. You can also get this in an 110 year anniversary limited edition with a golden cover.

 

Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin

Beatrix Potter is best known for her first book, 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit', but she wrote and illustrated numerous books, including the story about Squirrel Nutkin. If you visit the Lake District, you can take a look around one of her farms, Hill Top, which is now a National Trust property, and see some actual illustrations from her work in the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead village. The Gallery features a different display of them each year.

Squirrel Nutkin is a badly behaved squirrel. While other squirrels dutifully gather nuts, he messes about, playing by himself and time wasting. When the others obtain tributes and present them to Old Brown, the Tawny Owl who owns an island where they want to gather nuts, Squirrel Nutkin is disrespectful and pokes fun at Old Brown with silly rhymes. With each day's visit to Old Brown, his behaviour towards the phlegmatic owl becomes worse and worse until it escalates to the point of downright provocation. Provocation which finally meets retaliation.

Some people now find this story too violent for children, but I think you have to keep things in perspective. The original fairy stories told to children (and adults) were also pretty violent, but they were always bound up in morals and showed bad people getting their just deserts, which is also the tone of Beatrix Potter's books and a lot of other children's literature - think of Roald Dahl. 'The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin' is a cautionary story with the moral that you should treat others with respect and pull your weight in society.

As far as the various reproductions of the illustrations, the Warne & Co editions are best, in my opinion. In the early 90s, they made new transfers of the original watercolour illustrations for use in their books. Certainly, the pictures in my copy are much clearer with more vibrant colours than the images you see on the Internet. I think they're among the best of her illustrations and it is definitely worthwhile to get a good reproduction. I couldn't resist buying the book in view of the lovely watercolours of Red Squirrels, and mine is one of the Warne editions (see below).

This larger format version is the one I have. It's hardcover and a bit taller and wider than a standard paperback size. (Although this illustration makes it look pale pink, the cover actually has a white background.) I would have bought the iconic small volume, but this one was a bargain in a charity (thrift) shop!

Squirrel Nutkin Memorabilia

One place to pick up Squirrel Nutkin memorabilia is ebay. Often these are figurines by Royal Dalton and Beswick. Beswick was a respected firm based in Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands, England, who made many porcelain figurines over the years. Squirrel Nutkin was one of a series of Beatrix Potter characters that the firm began producing in 1948, and was created by Arthur Gredington, who worked for Beswick as chief modeller. Sadly, Beswick was sold to Royal Dalton in 1969 and was closed down in 2003.

Beswick figurines are collectible, although different ones have more monetary value than others. Be aware that Royal Dalton replaced the Beswick backstamp (identifying stamp, in this case under the figure's base) with their own from the late 1980s, and that most of the Beatrix Potter figures around will date from 1998 when the firm reintroduced the range. The original ones with the Beswick stamp will undoubtedly be worth more if you are planning to make a profit, as opposed to buying something you intend to keep.

Always do your research if you are buying antiques and collectibles - there are a lot of reproductions around.

Other Literary Red Squirrels

If, like me, you like reading, here are a couple of other books about Red Squirrels that sound interesting

How to Keep a Pet Squirrel
How to Keep a Pet Squirrel

Axel Scheffler, illustrator of tales by Julia Donaldson such as 'The Gruffalo' and 'Room on the Broom', here provides the pictures for text taken from 'The Children's Encyclopaedia of 1910'

 
The Big Red Squirrel and the Little Rhinoceros
The Big Red Squirrel and the Little Rhinoceros

A new edition of a British story book from the 1960s with new illustrations by Ralph Steadman.

 
Wast Water
Wast Water | Source

My Real Life Encounters

I've only seen Red Squirrels twice: both times in the Lake District, a National Park in the North West of England. The first encounter happened as I was driving slowly along the narrow road leading to Wast Water, one of the more remote lakes, which has a single road leading in and out. I was thrilled to spot a squirrel sitting on a fence post. There was no traffic so I stopped the car and reached for my camera on the passenger seat, but in the split second before I turned back, the squirrel had gone.

The second time was when driving with my family along the side of Crummock Water, along a narrow winding road. I was not going fast as, apart from anything else, you often come across wandering sheep on the road. There was a flash of glowing red as a squirrel darted across in front of the car, leaped up the trunk of a tree and vanished.

Despite the brevity of these sightings, I feel privileged to have had glimpses of such a shy elusive creature.

Crummock Water with High Stile, Lake District National Park, Cumbria, England.

by James Emmerson (24 in. x 18 in. at Allposters.com)

Efforts to help the Red Squirrel

This video describes the efforts being made in the north of England to save the red by controlling the population of the grey squirrel which, as a much larger animal and a carrier of squirrel pox (fatal to the red squirrel) has reduced the red to an endangered animal in Britain.

Saving the Red Squirrel in Northern England

On the Run

Peter Trimming did an excellent job to capture this action shot because Red Squirrels move very very quickly!


Photo Credit: Peter G Trimming via Compfight cc

More Action

Red Squirrels are best appreciated when you can see how they move. This video from Youtube shows how the BBC filmed a red squirrel assault course. Here you can see how the clever animals solve problems to obtain some tantalising food.

Clever Critters: Extract from BBC documentary showing red squirrels running an assault course

Jellycat Squirrel

Red Squirrels make cute toys and there are plenty of them around.

Jellycat Woodland Babe Squirrel
Jellycat Woodland Babe Squirrel

This toy looks the most like a European Red Squirrel out of those currently available on Amazon. I don't have this one but I do have a small Jellycat dingly-dangly Red Squirrel which is cute, and Jellycat toys are generally good.

 

Aaaaaah!

I can't help thinking that the Red Squirrel is the cutest animal ever. Technically, it's classified as a rodent and I've had some trouble with those, but this is one rodent I wouldn't mind having around.

Red Squirrel, Sat on Ground in Leaf Litter, Lancashire, UK

by Elliot Neep

18 in. x 24 in. at Allposters.com

The National Trust's properties include Beatrix Potter's farmhouse, and the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead. You can get an annual membership that gives entry to all their properties, or pay at the door, and their open spaces are generally free for anyone to visit.

Have You Had a Red Squirrel Experience?

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    • ChimpWithKeyboard profile image

      ChimpWithKeyboard 3 years ago from East coast of England in the county of Suffolk

      There are still a few where I live, on England's most easterly point, but sightings are getting further and further apart. It's typically three to five years between sightings now, whereas it was monthly back when I was a child in the 1970s.The greys are plentiful and very easy to find.

    • Adventuretravels profile image

      Giovanna Sanguinetti 3 years ago from London UK

      I have only seen a red squirrel once and it was so beautiful. The grey ones are everywhere. I can't grow fruit or nuts in my garden because they eat all the produce! Red squirrels don't stand a chance! I love this lens it's a real glimpse of Britain.

    • Ben Reed profile image

      Ben Reed 4 years ago

      They are lovely creatures. We used to find them in local parks here in the Uk. But they are a rare find these days.

    • stick-man lm profile image

      stick-man lm 4 years ago

      Check that, we do have red squirrels in the US (I'm a goober), but I don't recall seeing any in Texas.

    • stick-man lm profile image

      stick-man lm 4 years ago

      We don't have those in the US, but red or gray, they are both cute little guys. Great lens!

    • profile image

      ChristyZ 4 years ago

      They are so cute! I've never seen a red one before. Like you, I don't think of them as rodents. I think it's their fluffy tail that sets them apart. Nice lens! :)

    • thingz1 profile image

      thingz1 4 years ago

      I had an unpleasant encounter with an American red squirrel who somehow entered our home and was staring me down while I was on a business call! He and his friends wreaked havoc (chewing through wires, etc.) until we were able to trap and release them. The English variety is much more attractive and sounds a bit more pleasant!

    • Loretta L profile image

      Loretta Livingstone 4 years ago from Chilterns, UK.

      They are incredibly pretty, aren't they. I have a short movie of one I took feeding from a bird feeder in Scotland a few hears ago. We were pretty lucky as I'm not very quick on the draw.

    • BrandonCase profile image

      BrandonCase 4 years ago

      Great lens! Your palpable passion for these little ginger creatures provides a very fun reading experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed the BBC video showing their obstacle course. I'd love to visit the UK before too long, and will have to keep my eye out for these little flashes of red (and sheep, of course :D).

    • JohnTannahill profile image

      John Tannahill 4 years ago from Somewhere in England

      I've seen red squirrels in Scotland. Apparently, they're better than the greys at escaping predation by pine martens - maybe there's hope for them.

    • Carashops profile image

      Cara 4 years ago

      We've seen them on the Black Isle and also on the back road to Grantown-on-Spey. So cute.

    • Fiorenza profile image
      Author

      Fiorenza 4 years ago from UK

      @Snakesmum: Yes that's a worrying development that greys have moved into the Lake District and are now making the resident reds fatally ill with the disease they carry that they are immune to themselves. I wish there was a vaccine for the poor reds!

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 4 years ago

      Gosh, I don't believe I've ever seen a red squirrel, unless of course one of my squirrels was caught blushing. ;) Seriously, I have been inspired by squirrels until last Fall when my Drake Elm was loaded with seed pods ... about 6 squirrels would daily ravage the tree and drop clumps of seed pods in my grass ... which sprouted into little Drake Elms seedlings that I pulled one by one. So, that is my squirrel experience ... made me a little nuts, you know?

    • Snakesmum profile image

      Jean DAndrea 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Like you, I love red squirrels, but on a recent trip to the UK, only saw gray ones. We were in the Lake District too!

    • Grasmere Sue profile image

      Sue Dixon 4 years ago from Grasmere, Cumbria, UK

      I love red squirrels. We have them in our garden in the English Lake District. We are a Red Squirrel Watch area- working hard to keep out the greys and help the reds.

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 4 years ago from Australia

      So very cute! We have no squirrels here in Australia so no experiences to share, but I do have several possum stories :-)

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      they are a lot like the chipmunks

    • Fiorenza profile image
      Author

      Fiorenza 4 years ago from UK

      @artbyrodriguez: Thanks artbyrodriguez. I had it earlier as some people have said you can put them just after something related, but I do normally put them near the end so I have moved it down.

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 4 years ago from Topeka, KS

      What adorable little guys the red squirrels are! Don't think I've ever had the pleasure to meet one in person. :)

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 4 years ago from Albany New York

      Very well done lens. Your love for the Red Squirrel really shows here. RocketSquid tip...you could move this Comment Module a little farther down the lens