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Published on : 14th March 2018

Red and Grey Squirrels – Important Facts You Must Know

Red Squirrel

Red and grey squirrels are found across the UK. While their actual numbers are not known, the estimate is that there are millions of them living in the country. Of the four known varieties of squirrels in Britain – red, grey, black and brunette or ‘black-reds’, the red and grey squirrels are the most popular.

Currently, there are about 120,000 reds and 2.5 million greys in the UK. These two are well-known because they are the most common varieties.

How To Distinguish Red Squirrels from Grey Squirrels


One of the best ways to determine if it’s a red or grey squirrel is to check its size. Red squirrels are much smaller than the grey variety. In fact, they are often just half the weight of the greys. Red squirrels typically weigh between 250 to 350 grams with lengths between 18 to 24 centimetres. Meanwhile, the greys weigh between 400 to 720 grams with a body length of 25 to 30 centimetres.


Another good way of distinguishing these two squirrels is to look at their tails. The reds have tails ranging from white to dark colours. Meanwhile, the non-natives have tails composed of bands of colours. The tip of the greys’ tail is white which is referred to as the ‘halo’ effect. This tail feature is not present in the well-loved reds.

Grey squirrels have no tufted ears.


Red squirrels have tufted ears, a bunch of hair sticking out at the tip of the ear. These tufts become more visible in winter. Greys do not have this type of ears. However, this feature is not that reliable because the tufts shed off in summer. So, if you encounter a squirrel during this time, do not sole rely on the ears when identifying it.

Coat Colour

Many commit the mistake of depending on the coat colour to determine the squirrel species. It is important to note that this is not a very reliable criterion. Fur colours for both species can widely vary, depending on the season and region. For example, red squirrels shed their coats twice a year. It can range from russet red to dark shades like black or grey. Similarly, some greys may also have, aside from grey, rusty red body fur.

Other Important Things About Red and Grey Squirrels

On the other hand, grey squirrels are native to North America. They were first brought to the UK, specifically at Chesire, in 1876. These served as additional ornaments on estates. In the following years, more greys were released until 1915. Their population eventually flourished and their range expanded. Nowadays, they are common all over Wales, central Scotland and central and southern England.

Red squirrel eating

  • In terms of diet, red and grey squirrels eat the same types of seeds. Due to their size, greys are outcompeting their red cousins for food. Since they are bigger, they require more energy. So, they eat more food than the reds. In addition, because they are stronger, they tend to find more food (and eat them) which often leaves the native reds with very little food.

Furthermore, according to research, the greys are better able to digest and extract essential nutrients like proteins contained in oak acorns. Red squirrels cannot do the same. This is why, grey squirrels thrive in areas where oaks are present.

Meanwhile, in coniferous forests dominated by trees with small seeds, the non-natives struggle because they are unable to consume enough to meet their body’s energy requirement. Given these facts, conservationists and scientists say that minimising oaks in coniferous forest can deter grey squirrels from inhabiting the area. This is a good way of boosting the population of red squirrels.

  • Both varieties of squirrels can live peacefully together in the same woodland or forest. Little aggressive interactions happen when they do. However, when reds and greys inhabit the woodland, the number of breeding females drop. Furthermore, juvenile red squirrels have a tough time surviving. In fact, a study showed that survival rate of young red squirrels decreased by 33% when greys are around. Experts say that these scenarios are the effects of scarce food supply.

When fewer females breed and youngsters die early, the population can significantly decline if the problem persists for quite some time. When left unaddressed, it can lead to the extinction of the red squirrels.

Grey squirrel eating from a bird table

  • Another reason why the native squirrels are vanishing is because of a virus that greys carry. The squirrel pox, an infection that causes skin ulcers in red squirrels, has a high mortality rate. This virus does not affect the greys at all. This is one of the reasons why interactions between the two varieties is highly discouraged. In fact, there are sanctuaries for red squirrels where their non-native cousins are not allowed.

Yet, despite efforts to keep the reds away from greys, indirect interactions still put the natives at risk of contracting diseases like adenovirus. For example, a red and a grey squirrel may end up using the same drey, squirrel nest made up twigs, but at different times. Both squirrels may also feed on the same site like bird tables.

  • Efforts are underway to prevent red squirrels from vanishing from the UK. Apart from having special sanctuaries for the native squirrels, there are other initiatives which are ongoing such as preventing the release of greys into the wild and controlling the population of these non-native squirrels.

Red squirrel photo by Flickpicpete (Thanks for 2.5 million+ views)

Grey squirrel photo by chapmankj75

Red squirrel eating photo by -OliverMacaulay-

Grey squirrel eating from a bird table photo by Airwolfhound

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