A RARE albino squirrel has given birth to a pure white baby for what is thought to be the first time in Scotland.
Albino squirrels normally do not survive long enough to breed - their colouring makes them easy targets for predators. But experts believe the birth, in Livingston, West Lothian, proves the rodents can adapt to an urban environment.
The mother - a white version of the grey squirrel - is thought to be about two years old and the same animal that was seen last year in the Craigshill area of the new town.
Conservation officers have put the phenomenon of the birth down to the fact the animal is managing to blend into its surroundings. Albino squirrels in the countryside rarely survive beyond a few weeks because their bright white coats make them highly visible against the green and brown rural hues.
Julian Warman, a conservation manager with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said he was "very excited" that the albino had been breeding.
"Relatively rare white squirrels are an oddity and the result of a rare combination of genes," he said. "While it is unlikely that its external environment precipitated this mutation, what is unusual is that it has managed to evade its predators on a persistent basis and breed.
"Who knows, but maybe this is because it has managed to blend in more in an urban setting. While it is exciting to see, this is not a new species but just a colour variation of what we believe is a grey squirrel."
The grey squirrel was introduced to Great Britain in the mid-19th century and is now much more common than the native red squirrel.
Female greys mate only twice a year, but males may mate at any time. The size of a litter is usually between three and nine, but the male plays no part in the rearing of his young, which are born in March or June.
It is not known how many babies the albino had - or whether the father was an ordinary grey squirrel.
Robert Stewart, 51, from Livingston, has seen the mother and her albino baby playing around gardens in Craigshill for weeks. He said: "I have seen this albino squirrel for the last two years in the same place most mornings as I walk to work. However, I was surprised and delighted to see it had a baby about a month ago and I have been seeing it ever since.
"The baby plays with the other young grey squirrels, which I was surprised at as I thought they might fight because they look different.
"The mother gets food from the back gardens of the houses in the area and because of their pure white colour they look smashing."
Bob Saville, co-ordinator of the Lothian Wildlife Information Centre, said: "We have received some reports of albino squirrels over the years, but this is the first time I have ever heard of them breeding."
Gavin Legge, of the Grampian Squirrel Group,
said: "Normally albinos don’t last very long because the odds are against them when it comes to predators and also they can often be ostracised by their own community. I’ve never heard of albinos making it to breeding age."
Sue Hearn, a conservation officer with the Red Squirrels In South Scotland project, said she had not heard of white squirrels in her area. "We probably don’t see them down here because they would really stand out in a countryside setting and would therefore be picked off by predators very quickly," she said. "For them to breed at all shows that they are adapting by blending in with the grey urban environment.
"However, despite their colour change, they are still grey squirrels, which means they still pose the same threat to the native red squirrel in Scotland."
She added: "I’m sure these albino squirrels are very pretty to look at for the community in Livingston, but they are still a pest species."