The battle to save red squirrels from extinction is being won across Scotland with conservationists moving the well-loved creatures to new homes, creating strongholds for the threatened animal.
There is also an increase in sightings of the furry rodents in areas where woodlands have been improved but charities warn that more needs to be done to secure their future.
In the UK, red squirrels are now rare with only an estimated 138,000 individuals left. Their numbers have been decimated by the reduction of forests to isolated remnants, and by disease and competition from the introduced non-native grey squirrel.
Last month, (Nov) a project by Trees for Life relocating red squirrels to their old forest homes in northwest Scotland reported success in new populations of the animals.
The conservation charity has been reintroducing the squirrels to suitable native woodlands where the species has been lost in the Highlands. Because reds travel between trees and avoid crossing large open spaces, they can’t return to these isolated forest fragments on their own, meaning they were moved by hand. As well as helping red squirrels, increasing numbers benefit native forests, as the animals collect and bury thousands of tree seeds each autumn, which are often forgotten by them and can then take root.
Becky Priestley, Trees for Life’s Wildlife Officer, said: “Early indications are that this could be a real wildlife success story. The new squirrel populations are not only flourishing and breeding in their new homes, they are also starting to spread out into new areas – with squirrels being sighted as far as 15 kilometres away.”
The project’s initial relocations took place between the springs of 2016 and 2017, with the first 33 squirrels from Inverness-shire and Moray released at Shieldaig in Wester Ross. This was followed by 22 more released at the Coulin Estate next to Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve near Kinlochewe, and 30 at Plockton, which is owned by landowners including The National Trust for Scotland.
Animal welfare is central to the project and squirrels are transported in special nest boxes, lined with hay and containing food and apple for hydration. Only small numbers are removed from any site, to leave donor populations unaffected. Health checks ensure that diseased animals are not introduced to new populations.
The boxes are fixed to trees at the reintroduction sites, with grass-filled exit holes allowing the squirrels to leave when ready. Food is provided for several months as the squirrels get used to their new habitat.
Annual monitoring involves observations of feeding signs, drey surveys and sightings records. Community groups are used to report sightings, monitor the squirrels, and carry out supplementary feeding.
Red squirrels occur throughout most of mainland Scotland, with the largest populations in the Highlands, and in Dumfries and Galloway. The Scottish population – estimated at 120,000 individuals – has increased slightly in recent years, but the animal’s range and population would have been far larger before the loss of most of the Caledonian Forest.
Trees for Life now has evidence of the relocated squirrels breeding two years in a row at Shieldaig, and also of breeding at Plockton.
Natural recolonisation of other areas appears to have begun from Shieldaig. During 2016, the squirrels spread throughout much of the habitat, with one sighting 13 kilometres away beyond Loch Torridon. There have been further sightings in the same area during 2017, and others two kilometres further away, at Inveralligin.
Trees for Life’s Red Squirrel Reintroduction Project aims to expand significantly the numbers and range of the red squirrels and this autumn further releases have taken place around Lochcarron, with squirrels going to the remote Reraig peninsular and to Attadale.
Meanwhile, feeder box monitoring and camera trapping carried out in Countesswells and Foggieton Woods, near Aberdeen, indicates a good future for red squirrels in that part of the country.
The work by Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) and Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) indicates that red squirrel numbers in the area are increasing – and that the woods are free from non-native grey squirrels.
As well as following best practice to manage the woodlands for red squirrels, other measures taken include minimising the amount of large clearfell sites and maximising the tree species favoured by red squirrels.
Matt Nuttall, SSRS Conservation Officer, said: “We are extremely pleased by the results of our monitoring work from Countesswells and Foggieton Woods, as it demonstrates that the hard work of all the project partners, our volunteers, and members of the public over several years has had a real positive impact on red squirrels.”
Earlier this year the Scottish Wildlife Trust was awarded a grant of £2.46 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels – Developing Community Action project.
Over the next five years Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels will enlist many more volunteers from communities to carry out practical work to protect and strengthen the strongholds of the animal.