Rare baby red squirrels, normally born in spring, were an unexpected find in a nesting box on Brownsea Island, part of the recently designated Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve.
National Trust volunteers, making a recent routine check of nesting boxes outside of the typical breeding season, were astonished to find three baby red squirrels called kittens, snuggled up in the bottom of the wooden box.
Born blind and without hair or teeth, the kittens will stay nestled together until they are weaned at around ten weeks and ready to explore the outside world.
A red squirrel on Brownsea Island
A litter is usually born in early spring
The red squirrel breeding season starts with mating chases in January and a litter is usually born in early spring in February or March.
If a female squirrel gains sufficient food during the summer months, it’s possible she will have a second litter in June through to late August or early September.
However the National Trust says this litter is one of the latest in the year to be recorded by volunteers, since it took over the care of the island in 1962.
The three red squirrel kittens, all snuggled up in the nesting box
“Made sure they were all safe“
Brian Whitlock, National Trust volunteer at Brownsea Island said:
“We don’t usually come across kittens so late in the season, and as soon as we realised they were there, made sure they were all safe and carefully closed the box.
“The kittens’ mother stayed above us in the tree throughout and returned to her young as soon as we had finished.
“We always take great care not to disturb anything we find in the boxes during these checks.
“We have 400 boxes in trees dotted around the island which are used by bats, birds and red squirrels for nesting, resting and hibernation.
“The boxes are there to support species which need a safe and secure home.
“We carefully check the boxes twice a year outside of the typical breeding season to see what has made the box their home, to monitor if they need repairing or replacing, or to clear out any materials that show it’s been abandoned.”
Population of red squirrels has declined
The UK population of red squirrels has declined from a one time high of 3.5 million to less than 140,000 compared to a current estimate of 2.5 million grey squirrels.
Brownsea Island in the middle of Poole Harbour is just one of a few places in the UK where red squirrels can survive, so this find is welcome news.
The red squirrels have struggled due to the loss of habitats and the introduction of the American grey squirrels into the UK in the 1890s, which carry diseases that can kill red squirrels.
Brownsea Island, viewed from Studland
“Making the most of the settled weather“
Tim Hartley, lead ranger on Brownsea Island for the National Trust said:
“The red squirrels on Brownsea are totally wild and it’s great to see the population making the most of the settled weather through late summer and now into the beginning of autumn this year.
“The squirrel population does fluctuate and we will not know quite how successful a year they have had until our rangers and volunteers do the annual squirrel census at the beginning of November.
“Of course this is the very best time to see squirrels on Brownsea as they take advantage of the many species of tree nuts and seeds we have on the Island, hoarding them for their winter stores.
“They start their winter moult around September when the more prominent ear tufts can be seen. While they try to put on extra weight for the winter months, the squirrels must also stay athletic enough to leap between trees.”
Brownsea is the large island in the middle of Poole Harbour, between Studland and Sandbanks
England’s first super National Nature Reserve
Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour is part of the recently designated Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve, which also includes the lowland heathland from Wareham and Arne down to Studland and Swanage.
More on Brownsea Island is on the National Trust website