IT was the face of a hugely successful children’s road safety campaign several decades ago.

Thanks to the Tufty Fluffytail series of public information films, the red squirrel has become one of Britain’s national icons.

Now, the threatened species has enjoyed a big population boost in the Highlands thanks to a road safety campaign launched on its behalf.

Conservationists have revealed that a specially designed rope bridge slung between trees high over a road in Wester Ross has dramatically cut the number of squirrels being killed by cars.

Together with nearby road signs alerting drivers to the squirrels’ presence, it is believed the suspension bridge has helped a colony of the vulnerable animals to thrive.

Charity Trees for Life installed the bridge over a road near Shieldaig last summer as part of its project to reintroduce the species to the northwest Highlands.

The rope bridge is suspended over the A896 outside Shieldaig, which is part of the hugely popular North Coast 500 tourist route, alongside the Ben Shieldaig woodland, which is one of Scotland’s few remaining fragments of ancient Caledonian Forest.

Since the bridge and road signs were introduced, only one known red squirrel death has been reported on the road, with none reported so far in 2018this year.

In the year prior to the safety measures, there were three reported road deaths of reds in the immediate area, with another two on another nearby road.

And, over the same period, two litters of red squirrels have been born that is helping to bolster the local population.

Becky Priestley, Trees for Life’s wildlife officer, said: “Sadly, road traffic is a major risk for wildlife – including red squirrels.

“We wanted to take positive action to help the red squirrel population spread into the local woodlands as safely as possible.

“It’s safer for reds to travel in the tree canopy rather than on the ground, so it’s likely that if they have the option of using a bridge rather than crossing the road, they will take it.

“We also installed feeders at each end of the bridge to encourage the squirrels to use it. The combination of bridge and road signs definitely appears to be working well, which is great news.”

The Peoples Trust for Endangered Species says an estimated one million mammals are killed on UK roads each year.

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels, a partnership led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, has also said in recent years that three per cent of red squirrel sightings recorded via its website are of animals dead on roads, with the actual figure believed to be higher.

Estimates suggest there are only 120,000 red squirrels left in Scotland, which is the UK stronghold for the species.

The main threat to their survival comes from the alien grey squirrel, which was introduced from North America in the 1800s.

Larger greys can out-compete their native counterparts for food and nest sites, while also spreading diseases such as squirrel pox. The disease causes no harm to invasive greys but is deadly to reds.

Squirrel pox has helped destroy 95% of native reds in England and Wales since 1952.

For the last three years, Trees for Life has been carefully relocating red squirrels from their strongholds in Inverness-shire and Moray to isolated fragments of suitable Highland forests where reds would once have lived, but to which they cannot return on their own.

The reintroduced populations have been seen exploring their new woodland homes, and have been breeding and spreading into new areas.

Numerous young squirrels have been sighted at the release sites throughout 2018.

Experts say the west Highlands has ideal territory for establishing new colonies of reds because woodlands there are cut off from places with established grey populations and so provide a natural safe haven for native squirrels.

Ms Priestley added: “Early indications are that this could be a real wildlife success story. The new squirrel populations are not only flourishing and breeding, they are also starting to spread out into new areas – with squirrels being sighted as far as 15km away.”