Red squirrels, a species previously lost from their native woodlands, have been successfully returned to the Highlands, early results of a reintroduction project show.
The new population has naturally expanded since they were reintroduced to north-west Scotland last year. The species had disappeared due to the reduction of forests to just isolated remnants, as well as disease and competition from the introduced non-native grey squirrel.
However, Trees for Life – the conservation charity behind the project – is hopeful that red squirrels will continue to add to their 138,000 number and continue their bold renaissance.
“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,” said Becky Priestley, Trees for Life’s wildlife officer.
The initial relocations began in the spring of 2016, through to this year, when the first 33 squirrels from Inverness-shire and Moray were released at Shieldaig in Wester Ross. Another 22 were set free at the Coulin estate, next to Beinn Eighe national nature reserve near Kinlochewe, plus 30 at Plockton, which is partly owned by the National Trust for Scotland.
The red squirrel, an omnivore found throughout Eurasia, has experienced a dramatic population decline in recent years.
In 2007, just 25,000 could be found throughout the UK after a one-time high of 3.5 million. This is often due to the fact that their grey cousins have a larger appetite and eat most of the food in the forest. Reds are also more susceptible to viruses than greys, dying up to 25 times quicker after coming into contact with them.
Grey squirrels first came to England from North America in 1876 as an ornamental species often seen in the grounds of stately homes. However, it was not until 1930 that the damage they did was realised, when it was almost too late for the reds.
Now, though, red squirrels appear to be naturally recolonising. During 2016, they spread beyond the habitat in Shieldaig, with one sighting eight miles away beyond Loch Torridon.
Although annual monitoring will not begin until spring next year, conservationists have witnessed feeding across the Coulin woodlands on their specialised cameras.
One was seen recently near Nostie, about five miles from the release site, and there have been sightings further afield.
An increase in the red squirrel population means more tree seeds will be buried each autumn in the native forests – many of which can then take root after being forgotten by the squirrels.