Red squirrels are reclaiming more of their traditional Scottish habitats with a relocation programme in the north-west Highlands showing signs of success, its organisers announced today.
The native rodents are thriving in areas around Torridon and Plockton in Wester Ross, conservation group Trees for Life said.
The news comes as the latest evidence of the gradual resurgence of the critically endangered species north of the Border, which has been reduced from a population of more than three million in the 1870s to around 120,000 today.
The reds have suffered massively from both deforestation, because of their dislike of moving over open ground, and the squirrel pox virus, spread by North American grey squirrels which are immune to it.
Trees for Life said the number of red squirrels had increased slightly in recent years, with their strongholds being in the Highlands and Dumfries and Galloway. Since last year, the group has helped them recolonise other areas by moving some animals from Inverness-shire and Moray.
Becky Priestley, Trees for Life’s wildlife officer, said: “Early indications are that this could be a real wildlife success story. The new squirrel populations are not only flourishing and breeding in their new homes, they are also starting to spread out into new areas, with squirrels being sighted as far as 15km (9 miles) away.”
The first 33 animals, which were released in Shieldaig, west of Torridon, have bred for two years in a row, with one having since being seen eight miles away. These were followed by 22 released on the Coulin Estate beside the Beinn Eighe national nature reserve near Kinlochewe.
A further 30 were released at Plockton, a few miles to the south.
Trees for Life said annual monitoring would not start until next spring, but evidence had already been found of the squirrels feeding across woodlands on the Coulin Estate.
There have also been regular sightings around Plockton, with evidence of some squirrels travelling at far as Nostie, five miles away, and Balmacara, three miles distant.
Further releases are planned this month around Lochcarron, including on the Reraig peninsula to the west and at Attadale to the south-east.
The squirrels help native forests expand because many of the thousands of tree seeds they collect and bury each year are forgotten and take root.
The relocated squirrels are transported in nest boxes, lined with hay and containing food and apples to keep them hydrated.
Anne Gray, from Scottish Land & Estates, said the organisation had long been supportive of the red squirrel conservation effort.