Wiltshire safari park welcomes four baby red squirrels

Three of the four baby red squirrels born at Longleat with a hazelnut
Three of the four baby red squirrels born at Longleat crowding around a hazelnut. Credit: Sam Allworthy

Four baby red squirrels have been born at a Wiltshire wildlife attraction for the first time.

The mammals are virtually extinct in England but the rare quartet, made up of a boy and three girls, were born at Longleat Safari Park.

Chris Burr, a keeper at Longleat, is delighted to welcome the baby red squirrels – known as kits – which have not been sighted in Wiltshire in 56 years.

He said: "We’re very excited to announce the birth of our very first red squirrel kits here at Longleat.

"The youngsters are part of a very special captive breeding programme with the aim that one day these amazing animals can be reintroduced and thrive in our native landscapes.

Red squirrels had previously not been sighted in Wiltshire since 1965 Credit: Ian Turner

"Our role is to establish a healthy breeding population and, once fully grown, these kits will become part of future breeding programmes or perhaps even wild release themselves.

"Obviously our ultimate goal would be to have a population living on the Longleat estate and the aim is for us to have the native red squirrels back on site within the next 10 years."

Red squirrels are part of a UK-wide breeding programme to reintroduce the species into the wild and only exist in isolated populations on the Isle of Wight, Brownsea Island, Formby, the Lake District and parts of Northumberland.

Kits are born blind, deaf, and hairless into a football-sized nest - known as a drey – which is made of small branches, leaves, moss, and grass.

Red squirrels are virtually extinct in England but special captive breeding programmes are in place to restore their population Credit: Ian Turner

The red squirrel was the inspiration for Beatrix Potter’s famous ‘Squirrel Nutkin’ and was widespread across most of the UK until the 1940s.

It was one of the first species identified as needing urgent action as a part of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Their population numbers have dwindled because of the introduction of North American grey squirrels in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Grey squirrels are generally larger and can outcompete native reds as well as carrying the squirrelpox virus.

Today there are an estimated 140,000 red squirrels compared to the 2.5 million grey squirrel.