Red squirrels in the vanguard of rewilding efforts in Morvern

Red squirrels could be a common sight in Morvern woodlands. Photograph: Chris Aldridge|Trees for Life. NO F04 Red Squirrel Eating - Chris Aldridge HR
Red squirrels could be a common sight in Morvern woodlands. Photograph: Chris Aldridge/Trees for Life.

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There is a natural push and pull that exists within a healthy environment, a dynamic equilibrium that maintains stable numbers of each species within an ecosystem.

However, as the human population has thrived in recent centuries, we have tipped the scales so far in our favour that there is undoubtedly no longer a natural stability for many other species in Scotland’s landscape.

Rewilding has become one of the key arguments in support of a conscientious effort on our part to redress that balance.

Trees for Life is one of the organisations working towards a rewilding of the Highlands.  One of its key aims is to create revitalised wild forests, providing space for wildlife and communities to flourish together; it is to that end that it has brought its Red Squirrel Reintroduction Project to Ardtornish in Morvern.

Becky Priestley, Red Squirrel Project Manager for Trees for Life, held a meeting on Sunday January 19, at Lochaline Village Hall, that gave the local community a chance to learn more about the project.

There will be approximately 35 wild squirrels brought to Ardtornish and Drimnin from other areas within the Highlands where they have been successfully reintroduced, including Inverness-shire and Moray.  Ms Priestley said: ‘Scotland is the last remaining stronghold of the reds, with three quarters of the UK population here.’

As well as describing the translocation permissions and procedures, Ms Priestley highlighted the opportunities for the local community to get involved, from helping top up the feeders provided for the squirrels during the first few months of translocation, to helping with monitoring the new squirrel population and reporting sightings.

However, when it comes to the wider question of rewilding the Highlands, the impact on the lives of the local communities is always at the forefront.

Red squirrels are not a keystone species, therefore there is little risk to the livestock of farmers and crofters, or to the freedom of movement of those who enjoy walking, riding, or cycling in the landscape, and the squirrels’ impact on the ecology of the woodlands will be minimal.

The general reception to the reintroduction of these squirrels was positive, with both children and adults keen to get involved.  At the same time there was a question raised over the public consultation procedure.

The topic of rewilding continues to be a sensitive one when it comes to the reintroduction of predators such as lynx and wolves, and one attendee was concerned about the setting of precedents for future rewilding projects in the area.

Another organisation, Lynx UK Trust, had originally included the western Highlands within their 2017 proposal to reintroduce lynx to the United Kingdom.

The proposal – which was ultimately submitted for Kielder Forest in Northumberland and was rejected by the UK government in 2018 – had included financial compensation for the risks of lynx attacking sheep or other farm livestock, as well as a detailed exit strategy to recapture the lynx and house and rehome in the event of the scheme being deemed unsuccessful.

However, this was insufficient for some, including the NFU and the Crofters Commission, both of whom spoke out against the scheme.

For the lynx, evidence of their earlier presence in the landscape, before human activity pushed them to extinction, is one of the more emotive arguments in their favour.

However, as the Red Squirrel Reintroduction Project demonstrates, the previous existence of an animal on a specific landscape is not necessarily a pre-requisite for rewilding.

Regular Lochaber Times contributor Iain Thornber looked back at historical records in his Morvern Lines column of April 5, 2018, to demonstrate that there is little evidence of red squirrels’ presence in the area to the south of Loch Sunart.

But during the meeting, Ms Priestley illustrated that red squirrels had certainly been prevalent in the north-west of Scotland until the 1950s, and, as the suspected reason for the massive decline of the population in Scotland was the reduction in mixed and broadleaf forests across the country, the woodland areas of Ardtornish and Drimnin are an ideal habitat in which to support the future survival of this particular well-loved species.

While the topic of rewilding in Scotland continues to drive debate, in the case of the red squirrels of Morvern, the benefit could be said simply to come from the act of humans working with nature to help a struggling species thrive.