The reds go marching on

Translocating red squirrels from areas where they do well to woodland sites where they are absent is proving a huge conservation success.

Red squirrels have made a triumphant return to the Scottish Highlands

Red squirrels have made a triumphant return to the Highlands of Scotland, thanks to a pioneering reintroduction project that PTES has helped to fund.

Since autumn 2019, the Scotland-based conservation group, Trees for Life, has released red squirrels in three locations across the Highlands, two on the east coast and one on the west. In total, since the reintroduction programme began, Trees for Life has successfully created 10 new populations.

Becky from Trees for Life preparing the nest boxes to go in the trees.

Trees for Life has perfected the art of translocating red squirrels so they can colonise new areas. Squirrels are trapped from areas where there are good numbers, taking no more than two in every 200 hectares. All squirrels are then health-checked to make sure they are not carrying any diseases, and then driven to the release site in nest boxes. Nest boxes are put on trees, and the exit holes are opened to allow them to leave. Supplementary food is provided for 3-6 months. The translocation process is designed to minimise stress as much as possible and no squirrels have been lost during the course of the project.

Trees for Life map showing sighting records of red and grey squirrels from 2010 and 2021-22

The map shows how they are now found over a much wider area of the Highlands than they were in 2010 when they were virtually absent in the area north of Loch Ness.

Red squirrel project manager, Becky Priestley, said in a report published in early 2023, that all the new populations ‘are free from the threat of competition and disease from grey squirrels’. The reintroduced animals will be able to expand freely through the available habitat, with the total number in all the sites rising in time to 4,700 squirrels, she added.

‘The significant increase in both the number and range of reds will potentially make a huge contribution to the long-term conservation of the species in the UK,’ Becky said.

A red squirrel in a nest box whilst in transit.

Red squirrel colonies

The newest red squirrel colonies are in Golspie and Spinningdale on the east coast, and Lochaline on the west coast, opposite the Isle of Mull. The Spinningdale squirrels have already moved 10km away from the release point, while those at Golspie have colonised one third of the available habitat. There have been reports of females with offspring, and it’s likely the two groups will eventually meet up.

Those at Lochaline have colonised an 8km radius from the release point, and Becky says they believe the area could eventually support 1,500 squirrels in total. More releases are planned for 2024 to facilitate this.

Assessing for future reintroductions

Part of Trees for Life’s work also involved assessing which other areas of the Highlands are suitable for future reintroductions. Two sites, Drimnin (just up the coast from Lochaline) and Arisaig (also on the west coast) have already been selected, and another three are under consideration.

Thank you for helping us fund this research to protect red squirrels in Scotland.

If you’d like to support the third and final stage of this project, please donate or set up a direct debit here.

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