Cover illustration ©Jon Mitchell

Recently I’ve been doing some research about red squirrels for a new book. Despite having lived in Scotland for 25 years, I have never actually seen a red squirrel in the wild. They are the only squirrels native to Britain, but unfortunately someone thought it would be a good idea to bring a few grey ones from North America in the 1870s. The grey squirrel is larger and hardier, and competes with the red for food. As a result, over the past 150 years the red squirrel population has suffered, and now there are 15 grey squirrels in Britain for every red one. No wonder they are hard to spot!

Red squirrels are very pretty, with tufty ears and white tummies. My new rhyming story is about two young ones who are venturing out into the forest for the first time. I did a little Googling and found this adorable photo:

Photo ©AP

The first ten weeks of a red squirrel’s life are spent in a drey, which is a nest built in the fork of a tree with twigs, moss, leaves and dried grass. Sometimes these dreys are communal, shared by a group of squirrels at different times.

Photo ©wildwoodtrust.org

In my story the two baby squirrels, Rowan and Hazel, set off down their tree to explore the forest nearby. Naturally, they wander further than they should and run into a few scary creatures, including a hungry fox!

I had to find out exactly what red squirrels eat, and the Wildwood Trust website is a great source of information. Red squirrels live in forests with both conifer and deciduous trees, and their main source of food is hazelnuts and seeds from conifer cones. They also eat berries, flowers, green shoots and mushrooms. To ensure they have food to eat in the winter, they bury nuts in the woodland floor, and hang mushrooms up in the trees to dry for later use.

My little squirrels get distracted by all the tasty food they find, and soon are lost in the forest. One of the clues they use to get home again is a mushroom that Hazel has nibbled. This is a Scottish story because most of the red squirrels found in the UK today live in Scotland. The Wildwood Trust says there are about 160,000 red squirrels across the country. Of those, about 120,000 live in Scotland, 30,000 live in northern England and 10,000 in Wales. They have almost completely disappeared from southern England.

There are several organisations devoted to protecting the red squirrel, including the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. There are lots of ways to get involved if you want to help out.

I hope my new book will raise awareness about the red squirrel. I have found two lovely toy squirrels to take with me when I visit schools, but I hope we’ll never reach a time when they are the only kind left.