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Issue 11 - Plenty of thrills in winter chills

Scotland Magazine Issue 11
November 2003

 

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Plenty of thrills in winter chills

With winter approaching, Graham Halliday tells us how red squirrels are the main attraction in the coming weeks

The chill of December and January brings with it amorous action in the forests and hills as the mating season for foxes commences and red squirrels begin their courtship rituals.

It is easier to find the endangered, bushy tailed red squirrel at this time of year as the trees have lost their leaves. And with a little help they are becoming more common.

The 'Red Squirrels In South Scotland' project, managed by the Southern Uplands Partnership and part funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, is working to protect and enhance key red squirrel habitats in southern Scotland.

Squirrels are best seen early in the morning or late in the afternoon because they enjoy a nap around midday.

“A squirrel will usually see you before you see it,” says Red Squirrel Conservation Officer Zoe Smolka who works in Dumfries and Galloway.

“Every so often, it pays to stop and remain still for five to 10 minutes. Any nearby squirrel frozen to the spot, may feel that the danger has passed and will resume its daily activities.”

Head to Kirroughtree Forest in Galloway Forest Park which is managed by Forest Enterprise and constitutes part of Britain’s largest forest park (300 square miles). There are several way-marked trails around the forest providing great habitat for the thriving red squirrel population found there. Other spots include Dalbeattie Forest, Mabie Forest and Drumlanrig Castle Gardens.

There are many landowners and farmers throughout southern Scotland who control grey squirrels in an attempt to slow their spread into red squirrel strongholds. The key to success is thought to be the vast coniferous forests found across the south of Scotland.

Managed appropriately, red squirrels can, and do, survive happily in this type of woodland. Grey squirrels, on the other hand, dislike this type of habitat and much prefer mixed or broad-leaved forests.

Fox courtship is somewhat noisier than that of squirrels as they scream during the night to advertise their availability.

They also mark out their paths with powerful, musky smelling urine which is very noticeable during January if you are out and about near
where foxes live.

Take a stroll along any of Scotland’s beaches in January and your may spot small balls of what looks almost like bubble wrap. These are whelk eggs.

Whelks lay eggs in January and after a night of rough seas the freshly laid eggs often appear washed ashore and litter the shoreline.

Up in the hills the plump ptarmigan displays its winter plumage having shed its summer brown feathers. The winter sees the ptarmigan transform itself into a hilltop albino, completely white except for its black tail and eye-patch.

The camouflage is so good that spotting ptarmigan in the Cairngorms, or any other mountainous regions above 1000 metres where it lives, is tough. They forage for shoots, leaves, leaf buds, berries and insects and the bird makes a distinctive harsh croak.