Red squirrels nut out for the count

Native red squirrels are under threat from greys (Picture by Ray eye)

RED squirrels are making an apparent comeback in Scotland, amid hopes Aberdeenshire can be a bastion for the creatures as the tide turns against greys.

There have even been sightings of reds in Aberdeen city centre, where they haven’t been seen for years.

Reds have been on the back paw for years as American grey squirrels take over their habitats.

But the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels conservation project surveyed several sites in Spring and Autumn, and reported a thriving population of reds.

Along with new sightings in Aberdeen and its suburbs, there are less greys in the area.

The project has been working with landowners and the Forestry Commission to set traps for greys in a bid to give native red squirrels a chance to return.

Dr Mel Tonkin, project manager for Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels, said: “I think it’s encouraging that they are returning in quite large numbers.

“We’ve had sightings in Hazelheard and Milltimber, it’s quite unusual to see them in suburban areas.

“They are able to recolonise areas which have been cleared of greys.”

She continued: “If Aberdeenshire is cleared it would certainly make easier to protect them if greys move north from Angus.

“Aberdeenshire is unique in that there is no mixing of the populations.”

Grey squirrels were also a threat to Scottish trees, she added.

She said: “Greys strip the bark off trees.  In South Scotland they can’t plant broad leafed trees any more.

“So from an environmental point of view it might be a good thing.

“If we can remove grey squirrels from the area entirely it makes it easier for other biodiversity.”

She said American grey squirrels were first introduced to Scottish parks several decades ago, though with the following population explosion no one has admitted to it.

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels north-east project officer Annabel Harrison said: “There results are very  encouraging.

“With future support and funding, we strongly believe we can reduce grey squirrels across Grampian, allowing red squirrels to increase across the region.

“This would not only benefit Grampian, but would also be a huge step in protecting red squirrel populations in the Highlands and in reducing the threat of extinction of the red squirrel in the UK.”

Though red squirrels still face the threat of the deadly squirrelpox virus, after an outbreak was confirmed in Scotland earlier in December.

Red squirrel conservation bosses in the Borders warned fans of the creatures to avoid feeding them from garden nut baskets.

There are fears lovers of the animals could be putting them in harm’s way if reds pick up the disease from greys at feeders.

The disease does not harm greys, though can cause a painful death over two weeks for reds.

Experts at the Royal Dick Vet school in Edinburgh confirmed that there had been an outbreak, causing at least two deaths.

Experts say greys are moving in to Scotland from south of the border, carrying the disease with them.

Karen Rammo, coordinator of Red Squirells in South Scotland, a partner group of Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels, said: ““We know that seeing reds at feeders gives people an enormous amount of pleasure.

“But feeders are a focal point for squirrel to squirrel disease transmission and thus increases the likelihood of the disease spreading.”