The red squirrel is one of Scotland’s most loved animals and most of the UK population is found here, despite significant decline in recent decades. Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) was established in 2009 to ensure that red squirrels will continue to be a part of Scotland’s special native wildlife. Led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, it is a partnership project with Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Land & Estates, RSPB Scotland and the Red Squirrel Survival Trust.
The project’s main focus is combatting the spread of non-native grey squirrels in areas where this action will have a positive impact on Scotland’s core red squirrel populations. Grey squirrels out-compete reds for food and living space and some also carry squirrelpox, a virus that doesn’t harm them but is deadly to red squirrels.
In 2017 SSRS received a £2.46 million National Lottery Heritage Fund grant to begin a five-year project phase called ‘Developing Community Action’. Alongside vital conservation work, the project is now focusing on engaging with local communities and individuals, inspiring and supporting them to take action to protect red squirrels where they live.
There are all sorts of ways for people to get involved, from population monitoring to raising awareness to grey squirrel control work. More than 500 volunteers are currently engaged in red squirrel conservation work through SSRS. One of the simplest ways anyone in Scotland can help is by reporting red and grey squirrel sightings on the project website, and last year a record-breaking 8400 sightings helped SSRS monitor the situation and decide where to focus conservation efforts.
Landowner cooperation is crucial to achieving the landscape-scale protection Scotland’s red squirrels need. SSRS can offer advice on managing woodland for the benefit of red squirrels, grey squirrel control best practice and, where eligible, accessing funding for control work via the Scottish Government’s Forestry Grant Scheme. Over a hundred landowners in priority areas are already signed up to the scheme, with many others participating in grey squirrel control on a voluntary basis.
This collective effort is making a difference. Thanks to a highly successful trap-loan scheme, grey squirrels in the North East are now largely restricted to Aberdeen, with red squirrels gradually returning to the city’s parks and gardens. Populations across the Central Lowlands have stabilised, with Forestry Grant Scheme estates such as Argaty and Luss seeing red squirrels return after years of absence.
Core red squirrel populations across the south of Scotland continue to thrive, despite the threat of squirrelpox. Volunteers in these regions are working collaboratively, forming a network of local groups across the landscape. By developing and supporting these groups, SSRS will leave a legacy that ensures long-term, sustainable red squirrel conservation in Scotland.