FOR the first time, work to save red squirrel populations in Scotland is to be undertaken on a national scale, writes Mark Entwistle.
Last week, environment and climate change minister Stewart Stevenson announced that the three-year Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) project, focusing on protecting red squirrel populations in the Highlands, Argyll, north-east Scotland and northern Tayside, was to run for another two years.
This will be phase two of the scheme and will now also include the work being carried out in the Borders by the Red Squirrels in South Scotland project.
“In the three years since SSRS was formed, and together with the work being undertaken by Red Squirrels in South Scotland, we have seen some positive results as we work to halt the decline of the red squirrel numbers – in some regions, numbers are actually increasing,” said Mr Stevenson.
Karen Ramoo, Selkirk-based co-ordinator of the Red Squirrels in South Scotland project, told TheSouthern: “I am delighted that we have the go-ahead for another two years and that the fight to save and protect Scotland’s red squirrels will continue.”
There are between 200,000 and 300,000 grey squirrels in Scotland and only around 121,000 red squirrels.
The Red Squirrels in South Scotland scheme was set up to contain the threat from deadly squirrel pox disease in the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.
Funding for phase two of the SSRS project is provided by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Forestry Commission Scotland, although other funders are still urgently required.
SSRS project manager Dr Mel Tonkin told us: “With the Red Squirrels in South Scotland project, this is the first time that red squirrel conservation action at a national scale has been attempted.
“This project took potentially unpopular action that had no guarantee of success.
“It was a bold and visionary decision that the project partners and government ministers took.
“It has been a huge effort. Now we need to fine-tune it so that it can be financially sustained long-term – and this is the job of the next phase of the project.
“In South Scotland, both grey squirrel control and the monitoring of its effects need to be intensified at this time to take advantage of a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to work cross-border with the new Northern England Red Squirrel Project, in order to contain squirrel pox before it runs out of control.”
Ron Macdonald, Scottish Natural Heritage’s head of policy and advice, added: “In the next two years, the project will continue to prevent grey squirrels from spreading into the currently red-only parts of Grampian, Tayside and Argyll, as well as the core populations in the Highlands.
“It will also include work in South Scotland to defend red squirrel populations there from exposure to the squirrel pox virus.”