Red squirrels are being released in to a new woodland home as part of a groundbreaking project to extend the native species’ range in the north of Scotland.

Around 20 red squirrels are being relocated from thriving populations in Inverness-shire and Moray, to a new site in the Ledmore and Migdale Woods in Sutherland.

The native species was present in the area until around 20 years ago, but the woods have become isolated, leaving the animals unable to return unaided as they travel between trees and avoid crossing large open spaces.

Conservation charity Trees for Life has joined up with Woodland Trust Scotland, which owns the woods, to return the red squirrels to an area near the village of Spinningdale on the shore of Dornoch Firth.

The relocation is the latest phase of Trees for Life’s red squirrel reintroduction project across the Scottish Highlands, and the first time it has ventured in to Sutherland. Critically, the region is free from grey squirrels.

The first animals were released this week, with the others to follow later this month and in November.

Becky Priestley, Trees for Life’s Red Squirrel Project Manager, 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, and to be kick-starting their reintroduction to northeast Scotland.”

The charity says “urgent action” is needed to secure the long-term future of the increasingly rare red squirrel in the UK. It estimates there may be as few as 138,000 left, including some 120,000 in Scotland.

Their numbers have fallen largely due to reduction of their forest homes to isolated fragments and the spread of the non-native grey squirrel.

Greys, which were first introduced to Britain from North America in the 19th century, out-compete red squirrels for resources, and can also carry squirrelpox, a virus that doesn’t harm them but is deadly to reds.

Recent research suggests the decline of the iconic native species can be halted, however, with the animals holding on in many parts of Scotland and increasing their range in some areas, including the North East, around Aberdeen, where they have returned for the first time in decades.

Because reds naturally avoid crossing large open spaces, they have struggled to return to now-fragmented woodlands and so remain missing from many suitable Highland woods.

New red squirrel populations 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.

Spinningdale is Trees for Life’s northernmost release site so far. 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.

Ross Watson, Woodland Trust Scotland’s North Scotland Site Manager, said: “We’re delighted to be involved in Trees for Life’s inspiring and much-needed red squirrel reintroduction project. The ancient woods at Ledmore and Migdale include a stunning pinewood and one of the most northerly oakwoods in Britain. It is perfect for red squirrels.

“Volunteers from the local community have come forward to help us ease the reds into their new home. They will be feeding and monitoring how the squirrels are getting on. It is great that the local community is going to be a part of this exciting project, and with 19 volunteers the squirrels will almost have one each.”

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, but the species currently remains missing from much of the northern Highlands.

Trees for Life plans to extend the reds’ range further west next spring by releasing another 30 animals in the Morvern peninsular. The charity then aims to reintroduce reds to another two woodlands in the northwest Highlands by spring 2021, with at least one of these sites -- which have yet to be confirmed -- being further north in Sutherland or Caithness.

Animal welfare is paramount during the reintroductions. The squirrels are transported in hay-lined nest boxes that are fixed to trees at the release sites, with grass-filled exit holes allowing the squirrels to leave when ready.
Food is provided for several months as the squirrels get used to their new habitat. Annual monitoring involves observations of feeding signs, drey surveys and sightings records.

Only a small numbers of red squirrels are removed from any site during the relocations, leaving donor populations unaffected. Health checks ensure that only healthy animals are introduced to new populations.

Trees for Life is dedicated to rewilding the Scottish Highlands. So far its volunteers have established nearly two million native trees at 44 sites across the Highlands, encouraging wildlife to flourish and helping communities to thrive.

Increasing red squirrel numbers also benefits the expansion of native forests, because the squirrels collect and bury thousands of tree seeds each autumn, which often lie forgotten and take root.