People-powered campaign launched to return red squirrels to the Scottish Highlands

Trees for Life has launched an appeal to raise £22,000 to help red squirrels return to the Scottish Highlands

The conservation charity hopes that ‘The reds return’ campaign will go some way to re-establish the native squirrels in the area.

If successful, it will help reintroduce red squirrels in up to eight woodlands in the north-west Highlands where, experts hope, new populations will be able to flourish, safe from competition and disease from grey squirrels.

“Although one of our best-loved wild animals, red squirrels are sadly missing from suitable woodlands across the Highlands,” said Steve Micklewright, Trees for Life’s chief executive.

“They cannot reach these isolated havens on their own, because they avoid crossing large open spaces. Every donation will help us reintroduce red squirrels to ideal forest habitats. Returning them to forests safe from grey squirrels will help conserve this charismatic species forever.”

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Micklewright said the plan would also help the natural expansion of the region’s pine forests. This is because red squirrels inadvertently plant new trees by forgetting where they have buried their winter stores of nuts and seeds.

Over the last three years, Trees for Life has been carefully transporting red squirrels from their strongholds in Inverness-shire and Moray to isolated fragments of suitable forest at Shieldaig in Wester Ross, the Coulin Estate near Kinlochewe, Plockton, Inverewe, the Reraig peninsula, Attadale and Letterewe.

The project, which Trees for Life describe as “hugely successful” has seen 140 red squirrels released so far. The animals have been seen exploring their new woodland homes, successfully breeding and spreading into new areas. The charity is now seeking funding to allow it to extend the work to more areas.

Local residents have played a central role in the success of the project, including by reporting sightings of the charismatic species. Image: Peter Cairns

The squirrels are transported in hay-lined nest boxes, with animal welfare “paramount”, said Micklewright. Only small numbers of animals are removed from any site, leaving donor populations unaffected. Health checks ensure that only healthy animals are introduced to new populations, he said.

Community involvement, including local people reporting sightings, monitoring the squirrels, and carrying out supplementary feeding, is at the heart of the project.

Every donation will help us reintroduce red squirrels to ideal forest habitats. Returning them to forests safe from grey squirrels will help conserve this charismatic species forever

The new red squirrel release sites have yet to be confirmed, but Trees for Life plans to focus on the Morvern peninsula and north of the Dornoch Firth, which will extend the species’ current range.

Red squirrels are threatened by the spread of invasive grey squirrels from the south. Greys are immune to, and spread, squirrel pox virus, which is lethal to reds. The greys also outcompete the native reds. Greys were introduced to the UK in 1870 and now number more than 3m, compared to just an estimated 120,000 reds in Scotland.

Red squirrel numbers have also been decimated by the reduction of forests to isolated remnants.

To support the appeal, visit or call 01309 691292

Image: Peter Cairns

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