Red squirrels return to new Highland habitats as conservation drive steps up

Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
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Red squirrels are to be moved to a “perfect habitat” in Sutherland as conservationists continue efforts to return the iconic creatures to areas where they were once part of the scenery.

The releases at Woodland Trust Scotland’s Ledmore and Migdale Woods are the latest phase of a successful Trees for Life red squirrel reintroduction project across the Highlands, which is now moving into Sutherland.

The 20 reds will be taken from thriving populations in Inverness-shire and Moray and will be relocated to the Woodland Trust site, which is free of grey squirrels, near the village of Spinningdale on the shore of Dornoch Firth this month and in November.

Red squirrel project manager at Trees for Life Becky Priestley said: “We are reintroducing red squirrels to carefully chosen native woodlands where these iconic wild animals belong, but from which they have been lost.

“They will then be able to spread, safe from threats from grey squirrels.

“The Woodland Trust’s Ledmore and Migdale Woods are a perfect habitat for red squirrels. It’s fantastic to be helping the species return to this beautiful part of the Highlands.”

Urgent action is needed to secure the long-term future of the increasingly rare red squirrel in the UK, where only an estimated 138,000 survive, including about 120,000 in Scotland. Numbers of the much-loved mammals have been decimated by reduction of their forest homes to isolated fragments, and by competition and the spread of lethal disease from non-native grey squirrels.

Because reds travel between trees and avoid crossing large open spaces, they cannot return to now-isolated woodlands on their own, so the ­species is missing from many suitable Highland woods.

New populations of red squirrels already established by Trees for Life – following the charity’s reintroduction of 140 animals across several Highland locations between 2016 and 2018 – have been ­successfully breeding and spreading into wider areas.

The Spinningdale releases this autumn will be Trees for Life’s northernmost to date. Previous relocations of squirrels from their strongholds in Inverness-shire and Moray were to forest fragments at Shieldaig, the Coulin Estate near Kinlochewe, Plockton, Inverewe, the Reraig peninsular, Attadale and Letterewe.

Sutherland is home to an expanding population of red squirrels, following a relocation of 36 animals to the Alladale, Amat and Croick estates by the Highland Foundation for Wildlife and others in 2013.

Next spring, Trees for Life plans to extend the reds’ range further west by releasing another 30 animals in the Morvern peninsular.