Why is this important?
Although predation by domestic pets is not considered one of the main threats to UK red squirrels, in areas where the two come in to contact it can have a significant impact on the local population. If you are a dog or cat owner, or if you feed red squirrels in your garden, there are a few simple steps you can take to help reduce this threat.
Cats are predators, and unfortunately this means they do sometimes kill red squirrels. The most vulnerable time for the squirrels is during their nesting periods, usually March-April and July-August. The first step to reduce predation is to make sure your cat wears a collar with a bell attached, which makes it much harder for them to ambush their prey.
Another helpful strategy is to make sure your cat is always fed well and regularly, as hungry cats are more likely to hunt wildlife. Finally, keeping your cat indoors overnight means that they will not be outside hunting at first light when red squirrels are particularly active.
Dogs’ love for chasing squirrels is well known, and although it may seem harmless if they never catch their quarry, it can have a negative effect on squirrels, even when they get away. Red squirrels have to spend a lot of time foraging in order to generate enough energy to survive, especially in harsh weather.
When a squirrel is chased by a dog it is forced to expend more energy, which means it has to find even more food to survive. To help the squirrels, please don’t allow your dog to chase them whilst enjoying a walk in the woods.
As with cat predation, red squirrels are most vulnerable to dog disturbance whilst they are nesting. During this time, the stress of being chased by a dog could result in the squirrel abandoning its nest (called a drey) and moving its kittens to a new location. In nesting months, it is a good idea to keep dogs on a lead if walking them in an area that supports red squirrels.
Feeding red squirrels
If you are lucky enough to have red squirrels in your garden and have decided to feed them, you can help protect them from cats by ensuring your feeding station is placed somewhere high, preferably 5-6 feet up a tree. It is important to offer the squirrels a fast escape route if they are threatened by a cat.
Another option is to plant ‘red squirrel friendly’ shrubs that are covered in spikes, such as blackthorn or holly. Cats have sensitive paws, so placing clippings from thorny plants around your feeding tree, or in bare areas frequented by cats, can deter them from using your garden.