A Safe Haven for Red Squirrels: Securing their Future in Scotland

Trees for Life’s vision is to rewild the Scottish Highlands by saving and restoring the globally unique Caledonian Forest and all the wildlife it contains.  The charity aims to create a wild forested landscape from valley to mountain tip, where wilderness and people thrive.

The red squirrel is the most beloved mammal in the UK and an iconic species of Caledonian pinewoods. Scotland is one of the last UK strongholds for reds and this project aims to strengthen the conservation status of UK’s red squirrels by establishing new, self-sustaining populations in areas of the Highlands free from the threats of grey squirrels and disease.

Trees for Life has been involved in pioneering this translocation technique and early efforts have successfully established new flourishing red squirrel populations in a small number of Scottish locations. The project has identified several forest areas in the Northern Highlands of Scotland which are perfect habitats for reds but which they can’t reach on their own due to the large areas of open ground in between the forests and their current range. With the support of landowners, relevant authorities and local communities, they will re-introduce 4 new populations of red squirrels to these areas and inspire people to care for them through community events, annual surveys and citizen science observations.

The Update

This project is now half-way through its implementation. Highlights so far include:
– the successful translocation of 37 red squirrels to two sites in the northwest Highlands. Squirrels were captured from suitable donor populations. Following health checks, they were transferred into specially built nest boxes lined with hay and provided with food. These boxes were then secured to trees at the release sites. Supplementary food is also provided at the sites for up to six months: to give the squirrels time to become accustomed to their new habitat. Hopefully there will soon be signs of successful breeding – there are some exciting early indications that this is the case.
– talks and training events with local communities, which resulted in the recruitment of 10 volunteer rangers who helped with the squirrel releases.
– education in schools in the Highland community engaged 114 children.
– attendance at a number of outdoor public events, including Belladrum Tartan Music Festival, promoted the red squirrel project.
– three walks undertaken at the translocation sites engaged local people and taught them how to identify squirrel signs, including dreys and feeding remains

In the final report, received in early 2023, Trees for Life reported that covid restrictions had presented a huge challenge to the project, both in terms of their ability to carry out public engagement activities in schools and staffing. However, the majority of objectives were successfully completed.

Due to covid restrictions, it was agreed that only 3 rather than 4 translocation would take place, and 62 squirrels were successfully moved. Red squirrels were trapped across Inverness-shire and Moray with not more than 2 per 200ha to avoid negative impacts on existing populations. All three releases went smoothly with no loss of squirrels

Trees for Life found that the most effective way to monitor translocated populations was through sightings being recorded by residents – which are requested via talks, social media posts, and press. Field surveys are also carried out in areas where records are not returned.  The results have show that all populations are thriving. Squirrels are regularly seen up to 10km away from one release site. At another site, the squirrels have so far colonised approximately a third of the available habitat, and young have been spotted. It is expected that these two populations will link up in time. At the third site, squirrels have colonised woodland with approximately an 8km radius. The project has therefore successfully established 3 red squirrel populations in the Highlands, and they are spreading readily throughout the available habitat.

Visits and talks to school children was understandably disturbed by covid – but resumed when possible both with schools in the release area and a city school.  Events to engage the public continued (when restrictions allowed). More, smaller events enabled the target figure to be reached, and also enabled the project to engage with a much wider range of audiences.  Local people were engaged through guided walks where participants were shown around release sites and taught about the squirrels; talks with local communities where people were also given the opportunity to become rangers – responsible for helping with the releases and supplementary feeding; and training sessions where local people were shown how to search for, report on and help monitor populations. In total 227 people were engaged in this way.  Covid restrictions meant that tourism numbers were much reduced, and so it was decided to focus squirrel information on the organisations website rather than produce the leaflet for tourists.

The project successfully created 3 new populations of red squirrels, free from the threat of competition and disease from grey squirrels and which are able to flourish. In time, Trees For Life are expecting to increase the number to more than 3100 squirrels released through all of their translocations (including those funded by EOCA and others), significantly increasing the number and range of red squirrels and making a huge contribution to the conservation of the species. Although the project is complete, monitoring of the population will continue for 5 years to measure longer-term success.