Six red squirrel kittens have been born so far this year at Walton Hall and Gardens Children’s Zoo.
New arrivals to Walton’s squirrel families are now out of their nest boxes and can be viewed by members of the public.
Red squirrels thrived in this country until the 20th century when grey squirrels were brought over from North America and became the founders of today’s huge grey squirrel population.
Once grey squirrels start to breed in a certain area, red squirrels will normally disappear within 20 years. Grey squirrels are now so successful that red squirrels are nearly extinct in England and Wales, with some colonies remaining in the Lake District and Northumberland.
Red squirrels still exist in special nature reserves such as Formby in Southport and Anglesey in Wales and captive breeding projects such as Walton’s allows numbers to grow.
To date over 40 kittens have been born at the zoo, five of these have been released into the wild on the Isle of Anglesey and the remainder have moved to start their own families at Knowsley Safari Park, British Wildlife Centre and the Welsh Mountain Zoo.
Peter Cookson-Dean, Walton zoo ranger, said: “It’s fantastic that six kittens have been born at Walton this year as a result of our successful breeding programme. Squirrels can produce up to two litters each year, usually consisting of three or four kittens so to have six arrive is a little out of the ordinary.
“The young are looked after by the mother and are born helpless, blind and deaf. Their eyes and ears open after three to four weeks, and they develop all their teeth by 42 days.
At Walton there are five specially built cages linked by tunnels, with the squirrels mainly sleep in bird nest boxes, although they have also been known to use hay nets, Hessian sacks and to build their own nests in their tunnels. They will not come out in bad weather during the winter months.
Juvenile red squirrels can eat solids around 30 days following birth and from that point can leave the nest on their own to find food. The squirrels are fed on a very varied diet as it is important to introduce them to as many different types of food as possible when they are born so they do not become fussy eaters.
Walton rangers feed them a mix of rabbit food, pine nuts, pumpkinseed, banana chip, sunflower seed, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, peanuts and pinecones. As a treat they receive fresh food such as sweetcorn, apple and carrot.
Red squirrels will live to be around six years old, sometimes 10 years old in captivity.
For more information, visit waltonhallgardens.co.uk. The children’s zoo opens daily at 10.30am and closes at 5pm. Animal feeding takes place at 2pm each day and entry is free of charge.