One of the most important things a grey squirrel has to do in preparation for winter is to find and store seeds. These seeds can be in the form of oak acorns, hickory nuts, berries, fruits, buds, fungi, conifer seeds, and so on, and it is the storing of specific tree seeds that is so important for forest health and regeneration. Grey squirrels are “scatter hoarders,” meaning that they bury single nuts in many different locations. What is interesting is that even though these squirrels bury a huge amount of tree seeds every year, they will only only recover about 30% of them. More importantly grey squirrels are burying healthy seeds and eating damaged seeds first! This means that they are essentially planting a huge amount of healthy seeds (those seeds most likely to grow) and leaving 70% of them buried. Also because grey squirrels are scatter hoarders, they have generously contributed to the seed dispersion of different tree species and planted those seeds in a cool, dry, and healthy spots, thereby promoting growth. This is why in forest areas with significant grey squirrel populations, there tends to be higher numbers of young trees. This means that grey squirrels are continuously planting future generations of trees to sustain a happy and healthy forest.
Now some of you might be asking, “Well what about red squirrels? They live around here too.” Yes, it is true that there are red squirrels in this area and they also play a role in the ecosystem. However, red squirrels do not necessarily have the same impact on forest regeneration because their strategy for storing seeds is completely different than grey squirrels. Red squirrels are known as “larder hoarders,” which means their collected seeds are stored in large piles typically above the ground, not buried. Therefore, these seeds have not been dispersed or stored in such a way for germination success, meaning that red squirrels do not play the same critical role as grey squirrels in terms of forest regeneration.
So the next time you are walking down a trail at Sheep Pasture and see a grey squirrel, feel free to say a little “thank you” for all their hard work and dedication. Without them, who knows what our forests would look like!