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‘The local people thought it was magic – a bit like a ‘lonely hearts’ club’ for squirrels!’

We may be enjoying the wonderful nature of Scotland as we take a break in these summer weeks, but we also be aware not to take our landscape for granted. In his book, Cottongrass Summer, conservationist Roy Dennis, shares seasonal essays that both celebrate Scotland’s natural spaces and warn us to think on and take care of the land around us. In this summer essay, he shares his thoughts on the gorgeous red squirrel.

 

Cottongrass Summer: Essays of a Naturalist Through the Year
By Roy Dennis
Published by Saraband

 

A good day with red squirrels

On the last day of August 2015, my fieldwork was with red squirrels rather than ospreys. It was a magical day. At noon, I called in on old friends at Amat Estate in Sutherland to see how the squirrels in their woodlands had done. We sat at the kitchen table looking out at their bird table above the river. Soon there was one squirrel, then another, and in the end a total of seven beautiful red squirrels, all of them, bar one, born in 2015.

This area was where we, the Highland Foundation for Wildlife, working with The European Nature Trust and the landowners and staff of Alladale, Amat and Croick estates, translocated thirty-six red squirrels that I had caught in Moray and Strathspey during February and March 2013.

When I left the house I saw three more in the gardens and another ran across the public road as I drove off. Eleven squirrels – no wonder my friends said to me how much they loved the project and what pleasure so many visitors had gained from our successful work to restore red squirrels to this part of the Highlands, where they had died out nearly fifty years before. Two really young squirrels had also recently been seen in the nearby Alladale pinewoods and, judging by the number of eaten pine cones on the forest floor that I witnessed, red squirrels were indeed alive and well there also.

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 pinewoods also had red squirrels again. In the winter of 2008 and 2009, I organised and carried out our first translocation of red squirrels under a licence from Scottish Natural Heritage. This pioneering project was carried out with the enthusiasm and support of Dundonnell Estate. We moved forty-three red squirrels from Moray 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 Jane Harley, a Strathspey 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, and the boxes were fixed in trees in groups of four at the release site in Dundonnell woodlands. At each site six nut feeders were also erected and these were kept restocked during the first winter by Alasdair MacDonald, the estate keeper. Young squirrels were observed in the first summer and the population grew rapidly, with one enterprising squirrel even walking over the mountains to Leckmelm, near Ullapool. The owners of the garden reported to me that it was male, so in March 2009 I released a female in the same garden, and that spring they bred and reared young. The local people thought it was magic – a bit like a ‘lonely hearts’ club’ for squirrels! I called there again in January 2020 and my friends, John and Ann, told me that their garden was still a haven for squirrels.

The translocation of red squirrels to Dundonnell was so successful that in March 2012 we moved twenty more 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 very satisfying to think there are probably now between 500 and 1,000 squirrels between Dundonnell and Ullapool. At the Sutherland site, red squirrels have spread ten miles or more down the glen, and I received a wonderful eyewitness account of a squirrel boldly swimming across the River Carron to get to conifers on the other side of the water. By 2018, they had reached Rosehall and Strathoykell. It’s been very exciting to see how well these wonderful wee creatures have responded, given the chance.

That’s why I then had discussions with SNH and was granted a five-year licence to carry out further translocations in the Scottish Highlands, north and west of the present range. It’s a great way to create new populations isolated from the threat of grey squirrels and their disease risk. Under the licence, Trees for Life are also carrying out a series of translocations to suitable locations. My foundation has also more recently successfully restored red squirrels to Inverewe Gardens in Wester Ross and to Loch Ossian in Lochaber. I think our pioneering fieldwork has been so successful that it should be copied in many areas of mainland UK, instead of just accepting the presence of grey squirrels.

 

Cottongrass Summer: Essays of a Naturalist Through the Year by Roy Dennis is published by Saraband, priced £9.99

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