Feeding Wild Animals
Feeding Wild Animals
The tragic state of habitats destroyed and still being destroyed in the UK due to human activities - according to official government data the woodland coverage in the UK, even including forested Scotland, is three times smaller than the European average – results in continuous and rapid decline of many wildlife species. For that reason many animals suffer from hunger – especially in winter i.e. from the end of November till the end of April. Feeding wild animals is not only beneficial, it helps protect trees – because hungry animals like deer, hares, squirrels and many other saving themselves from starvation can sometimes damage trees – but it can also bring a lot of joy when we have a chance to watch these wonderful creatures play around the feeders.
When feeding squirrels we must remember about a few important rules:
Don't feed red squirrels from feeders but use scatter feeding
Recent scientific research (Warnock et al. 2012, Collins et al. 2014) has shown that red squirrel infected with squirrel pox, unlike infected grey squirrel, can transmit the virus via saliva. That's why it's important while caring for red squirrels – in the areas where they live – to apply scatter feeding which will minimise the risk of transmission of this serious disease.
We can often hear that it's enough to properly disinfect the feeder once a day and that will effectively prevent pox virus from spreading.
It's obviously not true – not only scientists are aware of that but everyone who feeds wild animals. While feeding wild animals we very rarely have a situation when only one animal of a given species uses the feeder. Usually there are a few or even tens of them using the same feeder. It's similar with squirrels and it can take one red squirrel infected with pox in our feeder and in a few weeks we can have an outbreak decimating local population.
Editors note: We've received many e-mails asking "can grey squirrels be fed using shared feeders"?
Yes, grey squirrels can be fed using shared feeders because as research shows they don't transmit the pox virus via saliva*. And of course grey squirrel body in most cases can on its own and very quickly fight the squirrel pox virus present in the UK (SQPV) and become immune to it which makes the recurrence of infection highly unlikely. The virus can be spread via droplet transmission (saliva) by European red squirrels* and for them "scatter feeding" should be applied – with no shared feeders. *(Warnock et al. 2012, Collins et al. 2014, ICSRS 2015)
Scatter feeding red squirrels
Despite complicated name it's really very simple. Instead of using one feeder that can be used by many squirrels, put the nuts in a few (depending on the squirrels numbers) places as close to trees as possible. Under every tree put for example 10-15 nuts (European hazelnuts in shells; and less if they are bigger nuts). This solutions ensures that one squirrel can eat enough and hide the rest pretty quickly. It reduces the possibility that many squirrels will feed on the nuts from the same place, significantly reducing the risk of transmitting the pox virus from a sick red squirrel to a healthy one.
Also remember about the rule for feeding all wild animals. Once started, the feeding has to be continued to the end which is till Spring (end of April) unless e.g. the symptoms of an outbreak are spotted – in such case animal welfare organisations need to be informed.
When feeding wild animals remember also about your own safety and follow good hygiene practice.
Products recommended for feeding squirrels
From the products recommended for feeding squirrels first of all we of course recommend nuts which are the natural part of squirrels diet. When it comes to their nutritional value, peanuts are the least beneficial and the best are hazelnuts, walnuts or sunflower seeds. "Rodent blocks" can also be used for feeding squirrels because it reduces the feeding costs but take note of their composition, especially the ratio of calcium (as high as possible) to phosphorous (as low as possible). Squirrel diet should be also – especially in winter and early spring – supplemented with vegetables and fruits (also dried) like grapes, apples, pears, carrots, corn (squirrels, like people, have "their own taste", not every squirrel likes all the above vegetables / fruits)
In hot weather remember as well to provide water because animals suffer from lack of water in the same way as we do. In the areas where red squirrels live, considering the possibility of transmitting the virus by them via saliva according to the above research, water should be changed a few times a day and ideally continuously naturally or automatically filtered.
- Warnock, N., Tosh, D., McInnes, C., Everest, D., Montgomery, I., Scantlebury, M., Marks, N., Dick, J., Reid, N. & Collins, L. (2012) Squirrelpox virus in Northern Ireland: quantifying the risk to red squirrels. Report prepared by the Natural Heritage Research Partnership (NHRP) between Quercus, Queen’s University Belfast and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) for the Research and Development Series No.
- ICSRS (2015) New threats to red squirrels.
- Collins L.M., Warnock N.D., Tosh D.G., McInnes C. & Everest D. (2014) Squirrelpox Virus: Assessing Prevalence, Transmission and Environmental Degradation. PLoS ONE 9: 1
ICSRS would like to thank Bo Chetwyn for allowing her photo to be used in the above article.