Conserving Scotland's red squirrels

Scotland supports an estimated 75% of the UK red squirrel population. Although one of the most popular mammal species in the country, they are facing a number of ecological challenges which have reduced their populations. The red squirrel is now one of our most threatened mammal species.

We're working with Scottish Natural Heritage and a number of partner organisations and individuals to save the red squirrel for future generations.

Public involvement is crucial to saving red squirrels in Scotland and we are delighted to support this through projects such as:

Red squirrel with nuts in its mouth

Red squirrel conservation priorities and key actions

The red squirrel is a priority species under the Species Action Framework. This sets out a five year plan for managing species in Scotland, so that effort and resources are targeted to offer the greatest benefit.

The greatest threat to red squirrels is the spread of grey squirrels. Grey squirrels generally have a competitive advantage over red squirrels because of their larger body size. Grey squirrels also carry the squirrelpox virus which does no harm to them but can kill red squirrels. The virus is present in some areas of south Scotland. If it spreads more widely it could threaten the survival of red squirrels across the whole country.

The most important actions we take for red squirrels are to:

1. Monitor the spread of grey squirrels in Scotland and support their control in key areas to prevent further losses of red squirrel populations.

Widespread grey squirrel control needs effective regional co-ordination and we encourage this through the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels Project.

There is grant support available to support the costs associated with effective grey squirrel control. You can find out more about this on the Scottish Government's Rural Payments and Services website

2. Establish and manage a series of large public forests as long-term red squirrel strongholds.

Following a public consultation in 2009, we are establishing eighteen public and private forest areas, as well as the Island of Arran, as red squirrel stronghold areas.

The stronghold areas, and key areas for control of grey squirrels, are shown on the Strategic priorities for red squirrel conservation (PDF 1.8MB) map.

More than two thirds of the total proposed stronghold area is on the National Forest Estate, where we will be responsible for securing populations of red squirrels in the long-term. For stronghold areas on private land, we will advise and support landowners to develop and implement suitable forest plans. Outwith these sites, land managers will be encouraged to incorporate stronghold principles wherever red squirrels are present:

3. Encourage wider habitat management that supports red squirrel populations.

Away from stronghold sites, we recognise that woodland management has to take into account other objectives and priorities, including native woodland expansion and restoration. Managing for other objectives may sometimes encourage grey squirrels but we will work with woodland managers to provide advice to minimise this where possible.

For more information on funding available for red squirrel conservation please see:

4. Encourage consideration of red squirrels in planning or development proposals likely to affect their habitat.

Red squirrels are fully protected by law and it is an offence to:

  • kill or injure a red squirrel
  • damage, destroy or obstruct a squirrel’s shelter
  • disturb a red squirrel whilst it is occupying a shelter.

If a development is likely to affect a red squirrel habitat, special care must be taken to make sure that the plans take this into account.

We have produced Guidance on forest operations and red squirrels (PDF 230KB)and your local Forestry Commission Scotland office can advise on Forest Plans and SRDP applications that may affect red squirrels.

It is currently not possible to issue a licence to permit actions that would otherwise constitute an offence in relation to red squirrels for the purpose of forestry or development. Provisions under the new Wildlife and Natural Environment Act may enable this in the future in particular circumstances. More information on this is available from Scottish Natural Heritage.