Red squirrels are being restored to a Sutherland wood as part of a reintroduction project across the Highlands.
Conservation charities Trees for Life and Woodland Trust Scotland have partnered up to return red squirrels to Ledmore and Migdale Woods, bringing the project to Sutherland for the first time.
Around 20 reds from thriving populations in Inverness-shire and Moray will be relocated to the Woodland Trust site between Bonar Bridge and Spinningdale during October and November.
The woods are grey squirrel free, an important factor in the reds’ survival.
Trees for Life’s Becky Priestly said: “Ledmore and Migdale Woods are a perfect habitat for red squirrels.
“It’s fantastic to be helping the species return to this beautiful part of the Highlands, and to be kick-starting their reintroduction.”
Previous relocations of squirrels from their strongholds in Inverness-shire and Moray were to forest fragments at Shieldaig, the Coulin Estate near Kinlochewe, Plockton, Inverewe, the Reraig peninsular, Attadale and Letterewe.
Red squirrels are increasingly rare in the UK, where only an estimated 138,000 survive, some 120,000 of those in Scotland.
Numbers have been decimated by reduction of their forest homes to isolated fragments, and by competition and lethal disease from non-native grey squirrels.
Because red squirrels travel between trees and avoid crossing large open spaces, they can’t return to now-isolated woodlands on their own, so the species is missing from many suitable Highland woods.
Ross Watson of Woodland Trust Scotland, said: “We’re delighted to be involved in Trees for Life’s inspiring and much-needed red squirrel reintroduction project.
“The ancient woods at Ledmore and Migdale include a stunning pinewood and one of the most northerly oakwoods in Britain.
“Volunteers from the local community have come forward to help us ease the reds into their new home. They will be feeding and monitoring how the squirrels are getting on. It is great that the local community is going to be a part of this exciting project, and with 19 volunteers the squirrels will almost have one each.”
Next spring, Trees for Life plans to extend the reds’ range further west by releasing another 30 animals in the Morvern peninsula.
The charity then aims to reintroduce reds to another two woodlands in the northwest Highlands by spring 2021, with at least one of these sites, yet to be confirmed, being further north in Sutherland or Caithness.
Animal welfare is uppermost during the re-introductions.
The health-checked squirrels are transported in hay-lined nest boxes which are fixed to trees at the release sites, with grass-filled exit holes allowing the squirrels to leave when ready.