Sunart contains small populations of Red Squirrels at Glenborrodale, Glenmore, Strontian, Acharacle and Moidart. These are at the extreme far north west of their range in Britain, and their presence poses a number of questions – How did they get here? Have they always survived in native oak woodland (Red Squirrels were thought to be extinct in Britain during the 18th century)? Or have they been introduced back to the country houses of the area along with other similar introductions in the early 19th century?
Sunart does not have any wild Grey Squirrels. This is a vitally important point as Grey Squirrels can compete for available food and so drive out Reds. The Greys can also pass on the parapox virus which is fatal to the Reds.
The available literature states that Red Squirrels can thrive in areas of conifer woodland greater than 200 hectares in size. But Sunart has populations within mainly broadleaved areas that contain few conifers. Is it the case that these conifers are vitally important for food from their seeds, or can a population survive in a pure broadleaved area? There is a golden opportunity for research into what constitutes an ideal habitat without any interference by Greys.
From this it can be seen that we have ideal habitats for Reds within the Highlands generally and in some areas of Sunart: so why are we not seeing more? Anecdotal evidence shows numbers have declined over the last 10-15years. Is this down to road casualties, natural predators, loss of habitat, changing weather patterns, disturbance…?
The Highland Red Squirrel Group was set up in September 2001 (in conjunction with Highland Biodiversity Partnership) with the aim of protecting and maintaining the Red Squirrel populations throughout the Highlands by promoting a better understanding of Red Squirrel distribution and habitat requirements.
A recording network of interested parties (numbering approx. 100) has been set up and has already given valuable information to collate a distribution map. Although these records only show where reds occur, the next stage is to set up a more detailed recording system. The core steering group of Forestry Commission, Forest Enterprise, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Highland Council meets on a quarterly basis to progress the Group’s activity.
Assessing Red Squirrel numbers is not a simple task. The first stage is to get an accurate record of Red Squirrel distribution and an idea of whether numbers are rising, stable or declining.
For more detailed information on Red Squirrels, click here to see the Highland Red Squirrel website.