The Isle of Wight is one of the best and only places in England to see Red Squirrels in their natural habitat.
These beautiful animals are indigenous to the Island and can be found in most woodland and forested areas. But they are also an endangered species and the Island is one of the only places in the country where you will see them.
This is because the American Grey Squirrel has now populated most of mainland Britain and it out competes the Red Squirrel for food and passes on diseases. Luckily the Solent has acted as an effective barrier to the introduction of the Grey Squirrel to the Island, and thus the Red Squirrel survives undisturbed.
Red Squirrels are able to live in a wide range of forest types but they prefer conifer because they can forage more efficiently. They measure around 35 to 40cm from nose to tail, weighing only 350g.
Their colour can range from bright ginger, to red, through to dark brown and they can even be tinged with grey. In the winter they are particularly noticeable with their big ear tufts. Squirrel nests, called dreys, can be spotted in tree forks or hollows and are constructed from twigs and lined with moss and hair.
The Wight Squirrel Project has done much work to protect and study Red Squirrels and Helen Butler at the Project offers frequent ‘Squirrel Safaris’ to track down the Red Squirrel in the woodlands of the Island.
Robin Hill Country Park is a good place to see Red Squirrels on the Island as they have large areas of ancient woodland that makes an ideal home for them to feed and shelter. Also with so many visitors wandering through every year the squirrels aren’t quite as shy as elsewhere.
Robin Hill works with ‘The Wight Squirrel Project’ to protect these creatures and promote their plight to all Island visitors. Every Friday at 3.30pm they hold a Red Squirrel Safari, a free walk and talk by Helen Butler and Mike Evans from the project who will lead you around the woodland and hopefully guide you to a live sighting or two. (Entrance fees to the park apply).
Marked around the woods are ‘Red Squirrel Hot Spots’ that give you an indication of the best places in the park to see the Squirrels. They’ve also installed a viewing hide and have Squirrel cameras transmitting live footage from Squirrel feeding stations back to the Tree house Woodland Centre.
Parkhurst Forest is another place to see Red Squirrels and there is a special Hide and Squirrel Safari in the Forest, built by Gift For Nature, which was opened by David Bellamy.
The forest consists of both ancient woodland (meaning it has existed since before 1600) and plantation woodland. It is owned and managed by the Forestry Commission and is partly a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The Hide resembles a log cabin and is built mostly from Oak and Douglas Fir, harvested from the forest and is free, open all year and accessible to pushchairs (wheelchair access may be possible for some users, but access is via gravel paths). Parkhurst Forest is open to the public and has a selection of well-maintained paths in addition to the Squirrel Safari and a large car park with picnic tables.
To find the Viewing Hide by car from Newport you take the Forest Road towards Yarmouth and after about one mile on Forest Road look out for the turning into Parkhurst Forest and park in the car park. Then follow the signs around the Squirrel Safari via the Hide or pick up a route card from Gift to Nature’s online shop. By bus, the nearest stop is Standen Avenue, but for a more regular service go to St Mary’s Hospital then walk along Forest Road.