Red squirrels which were recently brought back to parts of the Highlands where they had been absent for around 50 years are to have health checks in a bid to predict their long-term survival chances.
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh will analyse hair samples taken from wild squirrels at several west coast sites where they have set up home after being released as part of a reintroduction project by conservation charity Trees for Life.
The researchers, from the university’s Conservation Science Group at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, will test specimens for pests, diseases and genetic variability to gain deeper insights into the threats facing the UK’s only native squirrel.
The work is part of wider research into Scotland’s red squirrel population.
Dr Rob Ogden, director of conservation at the vet school, said: “The university is very happy to be providing scientific support to Trees for Life’s red squirrel reintroduction programme.
“We are committed to ensuring that wildlife conservation in Scotland has access to the latest scientific techniques, to increase the chances of project success over the long term.”
Alan McDonnell, conservation manager for Trees for Life, said: “Learning more about diseases, parasites and genetic variability is vital for ensuring a long-term future for the UK’s red squirrels.
“The research may also shed light on how genetic diversity is distributed across Scotland and how red squirrel populations disperse into available habitat.”
Red squirrels are threatened in the UK, with Scotland the national stronghold for the species. There are an estimated 120,000 reds left in Scotland out of a total UK population of 160,000.
Numbers have been decimated over the years by habitat loss and persecution.
Despite restoration of good habitats in certain areas, the species is unable to spread between isolated woodlands and so has been absent from many suitable Highland forests for several decades.
Trees for Life has relocated 140 red squirrels from healthy populations in Inverness-shire and Moray to isolated areas where they would once have lived – at Shieldaig, Kinlochewe, Plockton, Inverewe, Reraig, Attadale, Letterewe and Gairloch.
Evidence suggests the scheme has been successful, with the new populations breeding and spreading from the original release sites.
The charity is currently seeking funding for more reintroductions in the Highlands – at six woodlands on the Morvern peninsula and north of the Dornoch Firth, at sites to be confirmed – through its Reds Return appeal.