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Red squirrel

We coined them the 'tufted acrobat' in our Year of Natural Scotland Big 5 campaign and you voted red squirrels as Scotland's second favourite (second only to the golden eagle) wildlife species. They are undoubtedly stunning and charismatic. However, they face a number of current and real threats and they need our help to prevent their decline.

The problem

Red squirrels rely on woodland. They feed, nest and breed in trees and need good amounts of well-managed woodland to survive. Loss of woodland in the past has caused difficulties but our woodland resource is currently expanding for a variety of reasons and woodland owners and managers are mostly glad to be host to red squirrels.

Their biggest problem is the introduced grey squirrel. These animals were brought over from North America in the late 19th and early 20th century by people who thought they would make an attractive addition to our parks. Unfortunately grey squirrels survive well, out-competing the smaller, more specialised red squirrel across much of its range. Once found across Britain, red squirrels have been lost from most of England and Wales. Scotland has the largest proportion, with an estimated 121,000 of the 160,000 British population living in our woodlands, parks and gardens.

Grey squirrels also brought disease. While grey squirrels have developed resistance to many of the viruses and diseases they have evolved with in North America, when they were brought over with grey squirrels, these diseases create new threats for our red squirrels. In particular squirrelpox virus which is fatal to red squirrels. It is currently found only in South Scotland but, this virus has proved very hard to contain and the rest of the Scottish population could be at risk very soon. This is possibly the single greatest risk to the future of red squirrels in Scotland.

What are we doing?

Red squirrels were one of the first species identified as needing urgent action and a Species Action Plan was published under the Biodiversity Action Plan external site   in 1995.  In 2007, we included it on the Species Action Framework (SAF) which provided a variety of practical actions to help the species survive.

In 2009 SNH ran a consultation on people's views on carrying out grey squirrel control for red squirrel conservation - Protecting Scotland's Red Squirrels: The consultation response  PDF document . This found broad support for targeted grey squirrel control where there are clear benefits to red squirrels. Our main action under SAF was to support the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrel Project (SSRS) in which we are a partner. SSRS is now in its third project phase and has been hugely successful for improving our knowledge of red and grey squirrel populations and in co-ordinating the control of grey squirrels to protect reds squirrels in key areas. This includes protecting the Highland and parts of Aberdeenshire, Moray and Argyll that currently only have red squirrels. Work has also focused on maintaining red squirrels in south Scotland in the face of squirrelpox virus. For more details of this work please see the SSRS website external site .  With growing evidence of how red squirrels have benefitted from this work, the challenge remains to protect Scotland's red squirrel populations in the long -term. This work relies on public support particularly in areas still fortunate enough to have red squirrels. To find out more about how you can help please see the SSRS website.

Following a public consultation in 2009, Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) are developing a suite of 18 public and private forest areas, plus the Island of Arran, as Red Squirrel Strongholds. These areas are a mixture of private woodlands and National Forest Estate. Guidance and advice will be provided to help manage these strongholds for red squirrels in the long-term through their forest plans.

The Scottish Squirrel Group is the Scottish umbrella body for Local Squirrel Groups, conservation and land management organisations and public bodies with an interest in red squirrels. The Scottish Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation  PDF document    produced on behalf of the group has recently been updated. The Strategy outlines the current priorities for conservation action.

The UK Red Squirrel Group provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and information regarding red squirrel conservation across the UK. In addition there is an Accord at a UK level through which the signatories have agreed to work together on squirrel related matters.

Last updated on Friday 27th November 2015 at 10:19 AM. Click here to comment on this page