IT is among the UK’s rarest and most vulnerable insects.

Vanished from most of the British sites where it once thrived, the narrow-headed ant is today restricted to Scotland and Devon.

But now a glimmer of hope has emerged for the tiny creature - named for the distinctive notch located on the back of its head - after funds were announced for a conservation project at one of its last remaining strongholds in the Scottish Highlands.

The work in Cairngorms National Park, due to take place later in the year on the National Trust for Scotland’s Mar Lodge Estate in Deeside, will involve captive breeding and release of the insects to supplement existing populations.

It will also see nests moved to locations, such as heathland, where factors including sunlight, space and disturbance by other animals will help the ants become more dynamic and encourage them to create new homes.

Hayley Wiswell, conservation officer at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, said allowing numbers to decline further could cause significant harm to habitats occupied by the insect.

“These ants are considered to be a keystone species because they interact with many other different species at different levels in the food web,” she explained.

“They eat caterpillars, which will defoliate many plants, they farm aphids, they distribute plant seeds - they are doing all these different amazing things which have effects throughout the food chain.

“And they are part of the biodiversity web.

“Their nests are ecosystems in their own right by interacting with the soil’s carbon cycle and providing a home for other invertebrate species.”

Ms Wiswell said she and her colleagues were hoping to capture some newly emerged queens and males from nests and take them into captivity to mate.

The mated queens will then be released at pre-chosen locations as a way of creating new colonies.

She said that, while there are a number of different narrow-headed ant populations dotted around the Scottish Highlands, testing had revealed the gene pool is not as healthy or diverse as it could be, making conservation work all the more important.

“Among the Scottish population, there’s evidence of bottle-necking,” she said.

“This is when you have a large and diverse population, and then something has happened which has caused the population to crash.

“We do not know really what happened, although it’s possible that the habitat change over the centuries to more heavily managed farms and forests has caused the species to contract.”

Senior figures at the Cairngorms National Park Authority have welcomed news of the conservation project, which has received £10,000 in support funding from energy bar company CLIF.

Grant Moir, the authority’s CEO, said: “The Park is home to 25 per cent of the UK’s most threatened species, and a key area of our work is to improve the conservation status of threatened or declining species through the Cairngorms Nation Action Plan.

“Woods ants are a priority species listed in the plan and this support from CLIF Bar will enable us to focus our efforts so that we can be in a stronger position to protect and conserve this species on a much wider scale.

“We appreciate the help of the National Trust for Scotland at this very difficult time for the organisation and look forward to working together on this project in the months to come.”

In addition to the work at Mar Lodge Estate, the project will improve the knowledge of other wood ants species throughout the rest of Deeside.

Through mapping and survey work, ecologists will be able to identify areas where sections of forest can be better connected so that wood ants are able to move and disperse to other suitable habitats.

David Smith, senior marketing manager at CLIF Bar Europe, said his firm was delighted to provide help.

“We are purpose-led and are committed to sustaining our people, community, planet, brands and business,” he said.

“Last year we brought these values to the UK with the National Parks partnership and are tremendously proud of what we have achieved."