Red squirrels are being released into a new woodland home as part of a groundbreaking project to extend the native species’ range in the north of Scotland.

Around 20 red squirrels are being relocated from thriving populations in Inverness-shire and Moray, to a new site in the Ledmore and Migdale Woods in Sutherland.

The native species was present in the area until around 20 years ago, but the woods have become isolated, leaving the animals unable to return unaided as they travel between trees and avoid crossing large open spaces.

Conservation charity Trees for Life has joined up with Woodland Trust Scotland, which owns the woods, to return the red squirrels to an area near the village of Spinningdale on the shore of Dornoch Firth.

The relocation is the latest phase of Trees for Life’s red squirrel reintroduction project across the Scottish Highlands, and the first time it has ventured into Sutherland. Critically, the region is free from grey squirrels.

grey squirrel

The first animals were released this week, with the others to follow later this month and in November.

The charity says “urgent action” is needed to secure the long-term future of the increasingly rare red squirrel in the UK. It estimates there may be as few as 138,000 left, including some 120,000 in Scotland.

Their numbers have fallen largely due to reduction of their forest homes to isolated fragments and the spread of the non-native grey squirrel.

Greys, which were first introduced to Britain from North America in the 19th century, out-compete red squirrels for resources, and can also carry squirrel pox, a virus that doesn’t harm them but is deadly to reds.

Recent research suggests the decline of the iconic native species can be halted, however, with the animals holding on in many parts of Scotland and increasing their range in some areas, including the North East, around Aberdeen, where they have returned for the first time in decades.

Because reds naturally avoid crossing large open spaces, they have struggled to return to now-fragmented woodlands and so remain missing from many suitable Highland woods.

red squirrel

Red Squirrel image credit to Herald Scotland online

New red squirrel populations already established by Trees for Life, following the charity’s reintroduction of 140 animals across several Highland locations between 2016 and 2018, have been successfully breeding and spreading into wider areas.

Animal welfare is paramount during the reintroductions. The squirrels are transported in hay-lined nest boxes that are fixed to trees at the release 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.

Trees for Life is dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands. So far its volunteers have established nearly two million native trees at 44 sites across the Highlands, encouraging wildlife to flourish and helping communities to thrive.

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