A PROJECT to cull grey squirrels to protect their red cousins will continue for another two years, it will be announced today, as a new report reveals more than 7,000 animals have already been trapped and killed.
The Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) project has won funding to continue for two years beyond March, when the existing funding runs out.
A report about the initial three years of the scheme, seen by The Scotsman, has revealed for the first time the numbers of grey squirrels culled so far.
It shows that a team of “control officers”, as well as a network of dozens of landowners across Scotland, have so far destroyed 7,483 grey squirrels.
The rodents are trapped and either shot or killed by a blow to the head.
Grey squirrels, originally from North America, now number 2.5 million in the UK, compared to just 140,000 native red squirrels. All but 20,000 of the UK’s reds live in Scotland.
The greys not only drive out the reds by stealing land and food sources, they also carry a disease, squirrel pox, which leaves them unharmed but is lethal to the reds.
Stewart Stevenson, environment minister, will announce the funding at a red squirrel conference in Perth today.
Greys squirrels are being targeted in strategic areas, particularly Aberdeenshire, Tayside and Argyll and Trossachs, to help prevent them crossing into red squirrel strongholds.
Funding for phase two of the SSRS project is provided by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Forestry Commission Scotland.
SSRS project manager Dr Mel Tonkin said: “By renewing the project for a further two years, we are taking another step towards securing the future of this iconic species.”
She said the work had so far been a “major success”.
“This project took potentially unpopular action that had no guarantee of success. It was a bold and visionary decision that the project partners and government ministers took.”
The report The Evaluation of Grey Squirrel Control in the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels Partnership Project, revealed that in the two years to July 2011, 2,439 grey squirrels were culled by project staff.
Another 3,160 were killed by a network of 36 estates and 1,884 were caught by 57 estates and 159 individuals who took part in a trap-loan scheme.
The cost of culling the 7,483 grey squirrels was £463,213.
The report showed the project has had a statistically significant impact on reducing numbers of grey squirrels and has stabilised numbers of reds, or in some cases seen a resurgence.
However, it warned that the project must continue or the greys will just come back.
Ron Macdonald, SNH head of policy and advice, said: “Part of the reason for the project’s success is how it has brought together a wide range of people and organisations interested in red squirrel survival, including environmental bodies, land managers, volunteers and local communities, galvanising and co-ordinating action where it is needed most.
“In the next two years, the project will continue to prevent grey squirrels from spreading into the currently red-only parts of Grampian, Tayside and Argyll, as well as the core populations in the Highlands. It will also include work in south Scotland to defend red squirrel populations there from exposure to the squirrel pox virus.”