Everyone who has enjoyed reading Beatrix Potter stories will be familiar with the mischievous character Squirrel Nutkin, who lost his tail after being far too cheeky to Old Brown, the owl.

Red squirrels feature strongly in European films, folklore, children's literature and art. So much so, that most people in New Zealand will recognise a squirrel without ever having seen a live one.

One of the animals on display in our new exhibition Teeth, Talons and Taxidermy is Sciurus vulgaris, a red squirrel. This cute little fellow can be found hopping throughout the forests of Europe and Northern Asia, although over the last century the density of the population has changed greatly, especially in Great Britain.

Beatrix Potter character, Squirrel Nutkin, a red squirrel. Photo / Supplied
Beatrix Potter character, Squirrel Nutkin, a red squirrel. Photo / Supplied

Red squirrels like to live in deciduous and coniferous forests, choosing trees naturally abundant in seeds or acorns and with natural hollows and cavities in which to build nests. Individuals may have several nests to provide a variety of bolt holes should they need to escape a predator and hide.

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Red squirrels' coats change with the seasons. In summer they have a thinner coat in different shades of red. In winter they grow a thicker coat in darker colours, sometimes black, and have longer ear tufts to act as ear warmers. Their bodies can measure up to 23cm long and their luxuriant tails can stretch to 20cm, helping with balance and steering as they leap from tree to tree and run across the high canopy branches. Their tails also double as cosy scarves in winter. Their sharp curved claws help them quickly climb up and down trees without slipping, and their strong back legs assist with their great leaps. They can even swim.

Red squirrels struggle to find food in spring and summer, and if they have a bad season they can fail to breed, or even die. Their struggles became a lot more difficult when the Eastern Grey Squirrel marched in. The grey squirrel can be up to 10cm longer and weigh twice as much. They are more efficient at finding food and are more aggressive. In all, they have made things very difficult for red squirrels.

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Grey squirrels were brought into England from North America about 140 years ago when wealthy collectors wanted to keep them as pets or living garden ornaments on their estates. Genetic evidence shows that all the grey squirrels in Ireland descend from six pairs that were sent as a wedding gift. Greys also carry squirrel pox, which will not harm themselves or humans but will cause a painful and lingering death for the red squirrels. Conservation efforts are helping, and the grey squirrel has been completely eradicated from the Isle of Angelsey, off the northwest coast of Wales, in just 18 years.

Mother Nature herself is also helping in the form of the pine marten, a relative of the weasel and a native predator. Scientists have noticed that where pine martens show up, the grey squirrel population declines and red squirrel numbers recover. The reds, which have evolved with the pine martens, know how to evade them, whereas the greys haven't learned yet, and are much easier prey.

Control of the grey squirrel is the single most important factor in the survival of the red squirrel. The lesson to other countries is to eliminate the grey squirrel as soon as possible, and never to accept them as gifts.

* Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.