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16 Dec 2020

Red squirrel success story at Inverewe

Written by Rob Dewar, Natural Heritage Adviser
A red squirrel perches on a lichen-covered branch, facing the camera head on. Its front claws grip the branch. Its spiky ear tufts stand up straight. It carries a small nut in its mouth.
Returning one of Britain’s most charming and iconic mammals to the North West Highlands area.
The red squirrel translocation project represents part of a larger strategy to establish long-term viable populations in the North West of Scotland. Our most northerly heritage garden, Inverewe, is playing a vital part in its success.

The arrival of red squirrels to Inverewe in March 2017 was an exciting and historical event that marked the return of one of Britain’s most iconic mammals to the area. We worked in partnership with Roy Dennis (from the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation) who has a licence to translocate the squirrels, and Trees for Life, an organisation that works to rewild the Scottish Highlands. Trees for Life have also been active in a number of other red squirrel reintroductions, all stemming from the successful establishment of red squirrels at Dundonnell in Wester Ross several years ago.

Red squirrels at Inverewe

The first phase in the project at Inverewe saw the successful introduction of ten red squirrels to the woodlands. However, there was a bias in the sex ratio of the captured squirrels as there was only one female in the group! The second phase of the translocation programme has rectified this, and we now have a better balance of male to female red squirrels.

Surveys and monitoring on the estate show that the red squirrels have settled well into their new West Highland home, as several dreys have been identified in Inverewe Garden and the surrounding woodlands. Dreys are built in the forks of trees to provide shelter and to rear young. The establishment of the dreys and the signs of feeding areas, where cones have been visibly stripped, indicate that the squirrels are thriving. Recent sightings further afield from the original translocations are a positive sign that the red squirrel is expanding its range, which is great news for the long-term viability of one of our favourite animals.

Two men stand in a birch woodland, looking up at the tree canopy. A football-shaped nest made from twigs can be seen high up in the closest tree, which is also covered in ivy.
Rob Dewar and Martin Hughes from Inverewe, checking out drey locations

Many visitors to Inverewe have been lucky enough to catch sight of the red squirrels as the feeders and boxes have been placed in three areas around the site: two in the garden and one on the Pinewood Trail. The Friends of Inverewe and other volunteers helped with the making of many of these feeders and boxes, which was a great help.

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“The garden and surrounding woodland provide a continuous canopy that includes native Scots pine and exotic conifers. This provides a range of sources of natural food available to red squirrels, including cones from a variety of pine species as well as other tree seeds like acorns and beech nuts. Supplementing this are broadleaf seed, nuts, fungi and berries – all combine to offer the squirrels a good pantry and welcoming habitat.”
Rob Dewar
Natural Heritage Adviser at the National Trust for Scotland

The pictures below give distinctive evidence of squirrels feeding on Scots pine cones close to one of our release sites. The squirrels really strip the cones of both seed and scales, leaving behind just the core and perhaps a few discarded scales. Our Inverewe team member Aidan Bell has been monitoring the red squirrels and filming them around the estate – he has captured some great images of not just red squirrels but also pine martens taking food from the squirrel feeder boxes!

We encourage all visitors to Inverewe to record if they see any red squirrels, or any discarded and stripped pinecones. There’s a board in the Wildlife Hide specifically for recording these details.

“Were they ever here?”, “will they thrive and remain?”, and is it the right thing to do?” are all valid questions that were asked at the start of the project. No written records have been discovered that confirm red squirrels were at Inverewe, but there are local people that remember seeing them in the garden in the late 1950s. Perhaps these were part of a remnant Highland population that declined with the general loss of habitat.

Our larger-scale strategy is to establish long-term viable populations in the North West Highlands, away from grey squirrels and the threat of the deadly squirrel pox virus. The Inverewe translocation project is the first phase of a trapping and release programme from strong populations in Moray. All the squirrels are health-checked and weighed before being released, with supplementary feed being provided for the first few months. Red squirrels remain one of the most endangered mammals in the British Isles – they’re extinct in most of England, and seriously threatened in the central belt of Scotland. It’s hoped that securing populations in the North West Highlands will ensure their long-term survival.

The red squirrel translocation project has been made possible by support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and People’s Trust for Endangered Species. As native woodland expands across the landscape, red squirrel populations will begin to connect with each other. The Inverewe population is already appearing to begin to disperse – we have some bold individuals heading out to the oak and hazel harvest by the banks of the River Ewe.

Becky Priestley is the Red Squirrel Project Manager for Trees for Life and explains more about the project:

‘In addition to the releases at Inverewe, we have carried out nine further reintroductions – at Shieldaig, Coulin Estate, Plockton, Attadale, Reraig, Letterewe, Spinningdale and Lochaline – and we are currently in the middle of a tenth at Golspie. We are delighted to report that all the new populations are flourishing – breeding successfully and expanding throughout the available habitat. Of particular interest has been the long-distance movements that some of the squirrels have made to colonise new areas of woodland – in 2016 one travelled an astonishing 18km around the coast from Shieldaig to Inveralligin! There have also been a handful of sightings reported around Gairloch and Kerrysdale. I haven’t been able to confirm these but it is possible that some squirrels may have travelled from Inverewe – again, a very significant distance, and over some extensive stretches of open ground.’

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“The most encouraging thing to see has been the gradual expansion of squirrels out of the original woodlands and the first signs that some of the released populations are beginning to connect up. ”
Becky Priestley
Red Squirrel Project Manager for Trees for Life

Becky adds: ‘There are now regular sightings around South Strome, likely to be a result of colonisation from both the Plockton and Attadale releases, as well as in Lochcarron and at Achnashellach. The first phase of the project, from 2016–19, focused solely on Wester Ross, but our releases since then have enabled us to restore squirrels to other parts of Scotland. There is a wealth of suitable habitat on the Morvern peninsula, which is now beginning to be colonised by the Lochaline releases, and the aim of our reintroductions to Spinningdale and Golspie is to extend red squirrel range further to the north. It has certainly been an exciting and very successful project so far, and we hope to continue the work over the next few years and restore reds to as much of their former range as possible.’

A man and a woman stand beside each other at a junction of several garden paths. Both hold large wooden feeder boxes in their arms. Behind them on the path are two more people, also both carrying large wooden boxes.
The Trees for Life team at Inverewe during the red squirrel relocation project in 2017

We welcome support from the local communities around these sites, especially Inverewe. Do you have any historical accounts of red squirrel encounters in the area? Do you know anyone that saw red squirrels back in the 1940s or 1950s? Please let us know about any sightings if you’re fortunate enough to see them in the surrounding landscape, perhaps even in your own garden! Email me on rdewar@nts.org.uk and we can continue to work, with our wildlife partners, to monitor red squirrel activities and movements around Inverewe.

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