Saving Scotland's red squirrels

Red squirrels are at risk of disappearing without sustained conservation action.

Red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris, in woodland, Formby NT reserve, Merseyside


Once found across most mainland areas of the UK, they are now restricted to a smaller number of strongholds – namely places grey squirrels haven’t yet colonised.
In Scotland, it’s estimated there are only around 121,000 red squirrels left in the wild, more than 75 per cent of the total UK population. In the past, habitat loss and trapping to protect commercial forestry contributed to the red squirrel’s decline.
However the main threat now comes from the non-native grey squirrel. Greys are often more successful than reds when competing for food and habitat space because they are larger and more robust. They also transmit the deadly squirrelpox virus, an infection which kills red squirrels but does not harm greys.
In 2015, RSPB Scotland joined the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrel (SSRS) partnership. This partnership project, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is a national programme of work designed to protect red squirrel populations across Scotland and ensure their continued survival.


  • Sustain red squirrel populations north of the central lowlands and in key areas of south Scotland
  • Manage the impact of the deadly squirrelpox virus as it spreads south of the central lowlands
  • Establish a long-term, cost-effective means of controlling the spread of the non-native grey squirrel
  • Secure greater participation from landowners and volunteers in our grey squirrel control effort
  • Continue to monitor red and grey squirrel distributions across Scotland


  • 1996: The UK Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation is published, providing a framework for the development of red squirrel conservation throughout the UK
  • 2004: The Scottish Squirrel Strategy is produced by the Scottish Squirrel Group, comprising representatives from government agencies, NGOs and local squirrel groups. The strategy aims to 'maintain populations of red squirrels across their current range'
  • 2006: The Scottish Red Squirrel Action Plan 2006-2011 is produced, setting out an integrated approach to red squirrel conservation in Scotland, to include grey squirrel control, survey and monitoring, and addressing the threat of squirrelpox virus
  • 2007: The red squirrel is listed as a priority species in Scottish Natural Heritage's Species Action Framework, which provided the core funding for Phase 1 of Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels and Phase IV of Red Squirrels in South Scotland. Squirrelpox is detected in Scottish red squirrels for the first time in woodland just south of Lockerbie. The long-established Red Squirrels in South Scotland project (RSSS) is tasked with halting and pushing back the spread of the virus by intensive grey squirrel control
  • 2008: Phase IV of RSSS develops an extensive network of co-ordinated control by landowners grant-funded under the Rural Development Programme, with RSSS controllers continuing the intensive work inside an identified 'Priority squirrelpox control zone' (supported by Forestry Commission Scotland on its estates)
  • 2009: Following a public consultation, Forestry Commission Scotland develops a suite of 18 public and private forest areas, plus the Island of Arran, as red squirrel stronghold areas, providing long-term refuges for red squirrels if other conservation measures fail to halt the spread of grey squirrels. Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels is launched in April 2009, with the overall aims of halting the spread of grey squirrels, improving access to information on woodland management for red squirrels and increasing public awareness of problems faced by the red squirrel
  • 2011: Two reports - examining the effectiveness of grey squirrel control by SSRS and RSSS staff - are provided to SNH in late 2011. Although there was insufficient time to draw robust conclusions, the reports suggested trapping could be effective in reducing grey squirrel numbers locally, allowing red squirrels to re-colonise. While control efforts by RSSS had decreased the spread of squirrelpox through southern Scotland, new cases of squirrelpox continue to be discovered, including in Newton Stewart, Culzean and Mauchline
  • 2012: Phase 2 of Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels begins in April, bringing the two major red squirrel conservation projects in Scotland together under one umbrella. This two-year phase aims to continue a programme of grey squirrel control in targeted areas of Scotland and to contain or significantly slow the progress of squirrelpox spread in south Scotland. More than 400 landowners are now actively involved in the project, covering an area well in excess of 4,000 square kilometres
  • 2013: A new mathematical modelling approach, led by Heriot Watt University, aims to explore the patterns of spread of squirrelpox virus in Scotland and predict the likely future spread under different scenarios
  • 2014: Phase 3 of the project begins in April, aiming to sustain red squirrel populations north of the central lowlands and in key areas of south Scotland, manage the impact of the deadly squirrelpox virus and establish a long-term, cost-effective means of controlling the spread of the non-native grey squirrel

Planned Work

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is focused on reducing grey squirrel numbers towards an eventual level of virtually zero across Aberdeen and Aberdeen City. 
In Tayside, the project aims to prevent greys spreading into new areas from Perthshire and Angus. 
SSRS is also working with scientists from Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh to model red and grey squirrel populations, and the transmission of squirrelpox. It is hoped this approach will help predict what level of control will be necessary in future to prevent squirrelpox from crossing over the Highland line into red-only populations.


Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels is a partnership project led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Further reading

Tagged with: Country: Scotland Habitat: Woodland Project status: Ongoing Project types: Species protection