Ilona Amos: Return of the red squirrel is a welcome sight after 50-year absence

Trees for Life wildlife office Becky Priestley with a red squirrel trapped near Culloden that was released later the same day near Plockton.
Trees for Life wildlife office Becky Priestley with a red squirrel trapped near Culloden that was released later the same day near Plockton.
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My boss took his young son to the zoo at the weekend and was a little surprised when he discovered which exotic wildlife he was most keen to see. Pandas? Rhinos? Sun bears?

No. Squirrels. Good lad, I say. Although Scotland is the UK stronghold for the red squirrel, our only native squirrel species, populations have dropped so low it is now classified as critically endangered. The likelihood of spying one is pretty slim outside particular hotspots.

Red squirrels are found in coniferous forests and deciduous woods in Europe and northern Asia. Numbers in the UK have fallen dramatically since their larger “alien” cousin, the grey, was introduced from North America in the 19th century. Greys out-compete reds for food and nesting sites as well as carrying the squirrelpox virus, which doesn’t harm them but is deadly for the natives.

Reds have crashed from an estimated 3.5 million in the 1870s to around 160,000 today. There are only 120,000 or so left north of the Border.

The seemingly unstoppable northward spread of the greys, which now number more than 2.5 million across the UK, is responsible in large part for the nationwide decline of the red. But this is not the case in some areas. In the north-west of Scotland, for instance, widespread deforestation after the wars pushed the species to local extinction.

Luckily work is being done to reverse their fortunes. Just last week the Scottish Wildlife Trust was awarded a £2.46 million lottery grant to help conserve the species – though there is controversy over culling of greys as part of the plan. Another project has also captured my attention – and my heart.

There are still people around who remember seeing red squirrels in the wild in the west Highlands in the 1950s and 1960s. Records suggest a few stragglers may even have clung on until the early 1970s, but then they vanished.

But now a special “relocation” project means these cheeky wee ginger chappies will for the first time in half a century be seen in areas where they were once commonplace – including my childhood home.

As we speak, conservationists from the charity Trees for Life are out catching fit specimens suitable for a move west. Some 17 have already been taken to a new home near Plockton and the charity is looking for another ten or 15 to join them. Trapping is being carried out at a variety of locations across Moray, Inverness-shire and Strathspey from gardens and forestry land. To minimise the impact on populations, no more than two animals are removed per 200 hectares.

The Plockton pioneers can take comfort from the fact that 33 of their kind are thriving not far away, near the village of Shieldaig, and another 22 are living it up at a new home up the coast at Kinlochewe. And the people are doing well too.

Becky Priestley, wildlife officer at Trees for Life, has been impressed by the response from local communities. People have been helping release the squirrels and agreed to feed them for up to six months while they settle in to their new homes.

The release sites have also been chosen for their connectivity as well as suitable habitat. It’s hoped the new colonies will spread over time and eventually join up – in areas free from marauding greys.

I’m watching this relocation with excitement and hope it’s a huge success. In the meantime, Prince Charles is backing a move to surreptitiously sterilise greys by getting them to take contraceptives hidden in Nutella. Sounds like a winner – anything tastes good with Nutella.