Survey Season Approaches….

Original Author: Steve Willis

The big focus for the SSRS team now is the annual spring survey.


So the festivities of Christmas and the New Year are behind us now and it’s back to the grind stone for the team at SSRS. Grey squirrel control is underway in most areas and a key task for the Project Officers is getting set up for the big spring survey. So what is involved exactly? And, crucially, what can you do to help?

We carry out a massive survey of red and grey squirrels across Scotland each spring. We try, as much as possible, to repeat the survey in the same areas, using the same kit, at the same time of year. That way we can make comparisons from one year to the next. This survey should reflect the changing fortunes of reds and greys in any given area.

There are a LOT of woodlands to survey, so it’s simplest to break the landscape down into 2km by 2km squares- we call these tetrads.

Within each tetrad we place four feeder boxes and fill them with tempting bait. It makes sense to survey all the best bits of squirrel habitat, so we check the area for broadleaved woodlands where greys may occur and conifer woodlands which might hold reds. Feeder boxes tempt any local squirrels in, and once they work out that they need to lift the lid of the box to access the food they will visit again and again. What the squirrels don’t realise is that each time they visit they brush against a sticky bit of plastic inside the lid which collects a small amount of hair from the squirrel.

A trail camera captures the moment a red squirrel enters a feeder box. As it does, the animal will leave a wee collection of hairs inside the lid.

These boxes are set up and filled with bait some time in early March. After that the volunteer just needs to visit the feeder three more times, at roughly fortnightly intervals. Each time they just need to refresh the bait and carefully swap over the sticky tab and seal it in a bag. There’s a tiny amount of paperwork to complete, then by around late April the survey is complete!

Success! The sticky tab is plastered in hair. But whose hair is it?

Once the volunteer has collected their three ‘stickies’ from each of the four boxes they send them in to us with their paperwork. We then have the joyous job of spending hours (and we really do mean hours) staring down the microscope and identifying squirrel hair by it’s colour and structure. It’s a big job, but always nice to get to that stage and see the picture come together.

Red squirrel hair (approximately x20)
Grey squirrel hair (approximately x20)

There are volunteering opportunities all over Scotland. It can be a very pleasant thing to do and can be combined with visits to the woods whilst walking the dog, exercising, or just enjoying moments of quiet contemplation. We appreciate the help so get involved!

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