Although one of the country’s most iconic animals, the once widespread red squirrel is now only found in a handful of locations around the UK. Their presence across much of the Scottish Highlands has drastically dwindled together with the loss of the region’s ancient woodlands.
Now, thanks to a groundbreaking reintroduction project, the red squirrel is starting to see a comeback across the region.
Conservation charity Trees for Life is dedicated to rewilding the Highlands, and have to-date successfully reintroduced 140 reds to sites across the area between 2016 and 2018.
Implementing the most recent part of the scheme, the charity has partnered with Woodland Trust Scotland to bring the enigmatic red squirrel back to Sutherland Wood. Previously, Trees for Life released the red into Woodland Trust Scotland’s Ledmore and Migdale Woods, but their return to Sutherland will mark the northernmost point of their range.
A red squirrel after release in Ledmore and Migdale Woods, October 2019. © Mat Larkin
Approximately 20 red squirrels will be transported from sites in Inverness-shire and Moray to the woodland location near the village of Spinningdale by Dornoch Firth between October and November this year.
Part of the reason this location was chosen as a reintroduction site is that the region is free of grey squirrels, which have been a major factor in contributing to their demise, owing to increased competition from the non-native grey. Grey squirrels also spread lethal diseases to red squirrels, from which they have no natural immunity, plummeting their populations further.
Becky Priestley, Trees for Life’s Red Squirrel Project Manager, explains, “We are reintroducing red squirrels to carefully chosen native woodlands where these iconic wild animals belong, but from which they have been lost. They will then be able to spread, safe from threats from grey squirrels.”
Habitat loss has also proved costly for the red. With woodlands now fragmented, it means that red squirrels are unable to return to these now isolated woodlands as they avoid crossing large, open spaces and travel instead between trees where they are safe in the canopy. This has kept them from re-establishing themselves in many suitable Highland woods.
But with help, the red squirrel’s future in Scotland seems hopeful.
Next spring, Trees for Life plan to release a further 30 squirrels in the Morvern Peninsula, before reintroducing more to two other woodlands in the northwest Highlands by spring 2021.
Their presence in the Highlands will also benefit the area’s struggling woodlands. As squirrels collect and bury thousands of tree seeds each autumn, it will help more trees to take root, returning lost forest habitat to the Highlands.