The reverse in fortunes for the iconic red squirrel is has been most notable in the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Ayrshire, and the north-east of Scotland.
The red squirrel is the UK’s only native squirrel and numbers had declined rapidly since the introduction of grey squirrels from North America in the 19th Century.
Since 1952, 95 per cent of red squirrels in England and Wales have been wiped out, and today 75 per cent of the UK’s remaining population is found in Scotland. However, greys still threaten the existence of the native reds because they compete for food and habitat, and transmit the deadly squirrelpox virus.
The fight to save the red squirrel from extinction started with the launch of the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project.
RSPB Scotland has now announced it was joining forces with five other charitable, government and landowning bodies in a bid to secure the future of the woodland mammal.
The project aims to continue to prevent the spread northwards of grey squirrels and squirrelpox via a programme of grey squirrel control in a zone running coast to coast along the Highland Boundary Fault.
It will also define and map priority areas for red squirrel conservation in south Scotland, and co-ordinate the delivery of the grey squirrel control required to sustain healthy red squirrel populations.
Dr Aileen McLeod, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, said:“Scotland has adopted a pioneering approach to protecting our red squirrel population, which involves a number of organisations working together.
“The numbers of red squirrels in Scotland are increasing and are now returning to their former habitats.
“This has been most notably in the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Ayrshire, and the north-east of Scotland where people are once again seeing red squirrels visiting the bird feeders in their gardens.
“This is due to the great work being carried out by various stakeholders, such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust through the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrel’s project, landowners, Forestry Commission Scotland, and volunteers who have been undertaking targeted control of grey squirrels.
“I am also delighted that RSPB Scotland are now involved in Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels, who will bring a wealth of knowledge to the project, which will benefit red squirrel conservation in Scotland.”
Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland, said: “We are in the privileged position of owning and managing more than 80 nature reserves across Scotland, and we already posses a huge responsibility for delivering on the conservation of our native red squirrels.
“We have been very impressed with the work of the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project, as it represents what we believe is the very best chance of preventing the extinction of this species on the British mainland.
“We are really pleased not only to be joining forces with the member organisations to help contribute to this important work, but also to commit hard-won charitable funds to this excellent project. We are looking forward to a very productive and constructive partnership.”
Project Manager for Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels, Mel Tonkin, said: “Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels has already been successful in beginning to reverse the downward trend for red squirrels in Scotland, but our work will need to continue for many years to really secure the future of the species.
“We are therefore delighted with this new partnership with RSPB Scotland. The RSPB has plenty of experience in the challenges of long-term species conservation and brings with it the opportunity to get a lot more people engaged in red squirrel conservation.”
Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is a partnership project between the Scottish Wildlife Trust, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Land & Estates, and the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.