A good day with red squirrels

Yesterday, I had a day’s fieldwork with red squirrels rather than ospreys. It was a magic day – the last day of August. At midday, I called in on old friends at Amat in Sutherland to see how the squirrels in their woodlands had done. We sat at the kitchen table looking out at their bird table – soon there was one squirrel, then another and in the end a total of seven beautiful red squirrels, all of them, but one, had been born in 2015. This was where we, the Highland Foundation for Wildlife, with The European Nature Trust and the landowners and staff of Alladale, Amat and Croick estates translocated 36 red squirrels, which we had caught earlier in the day in Moray and Strathspey during February and March 2013. When I left the house I saw three more in the gardens and then one ran across the public road as I drove off. Eleven squirrels – no wonder they said to me how much they loved the project and what pleasure so many visitors had gained from our successful project to restore red squirrels to this part of the Highlands, where they had died out nearly 50 years before. Earlier in the day, I had also proved that squirrels were alive and well in the Alladale pinewoods from the amount of eaten pine cones on the forest floor and a report of two really young squirrels seen there recently.

Later in the day, after checking out a satellite tagged golden eagle location, I drove along Loch Broom from Ullapool. It was great to know that those pine woods also have red squirrels again. In the winter of 2008 and 2009, we did first translocation of red squirrels under a licence from SNH. This pioneering project was carried out with the enthusiasm and support of Dundonnell Estate. We moved 43 red squirrels from Moray, where I live, and Strathspey, with the support of private landowners and people who feed squirrels in their gardens. Two squirrels were live trapped in any one place, checked by the vet and then driven the same day to the release site. Each squirrel was transported in a nest box containing hay, nuts and sweet apple, which was fixed in a tree in groups of four. At each site six nut feeders were also erected and these were kept restocked during the first winter. Young were found in the first summer and the population grew rapidly. One enterprising squirrel walked over the mountains to Leckmelm near Ullapool. In March 2009 I released a female in the same garden and that spring they bred and reared young.

The translocation of red squirrels to Dundonnell was so successful that in March 2012 we moved 20 squirrels from Dundonnell to three private estates on Loch Broomside. Again the squirrels responded and it’s wonderful to know that red squirrels have spread throughout all the available woodlands and now occur in some of the gardens in Ullapool. The squirrels were last seen in these parts of Wester Ross in the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s wonderful to think there are probably now between 500 and a thousand squirrels between Dundonnell and Ullapool. At the Sutherland site red squirrels have spread five miles or more down the glen and I received a wonderful eye-witness account of a squirrel boldly swimming across the River Carron to get to conifers on that side of the water.  Given a chance it’s been wonderful to see how well these wonderful wee creatures have responded.

That’s why I have had discussions with SNH over the past year and now have a 5 year licence to carry out further translocations in the ScottishHighlands, north and west of the present range. It’s a great way to create new populations isolated from threats from grey squirrels and their disease risk. This time, Becky Priestley, the new wildlife officer with Trees for Life will be part of the project and the aim is to carry out a series of translocations to suitable locations.