Report from George Markie.
SCOTLAND'S vulnerable red squirrel population is being threatened by pressure from housing development, it has been claimed.
As a new strategy was launched yesterday to halt the decline of the endangered animals, conservationists said their woodland habitat is being targeted for development.
The population of the native animal has greatly reduced over the past 100 years, due to loss of habitat and the advance of its larger non-native cousin, the grey squirrel.
Mairi Cole, a mammals specialist at Scottish Natural Heritage, which helped publish the Scottish Strategy for Red Squirrel Conservation, said: "Red squirrels in Scotland continue to be threatened, particularly by development, woodland management and competition from the grey squirrel.
"This strategy will help us to focus on areas where we can maximise our efforts to protect this endangered species and sets out clear ways of working with foresters and other groups which can help red squirrels survive."
Despite their high profile, red squirrels are under-recorded in a large part of the country, but it is known that around 75 per cent of the UK population, around 21,000 animals, are in Scotland.
The species was formerly widespread throughout Britain but is now restricted to Scotland, the north of England and small pockets in Wales and southern England.
Other reasons for their decline include the loss of its habitat through extensive woodland felling, the lack of mature Scots pine and the replacement of Norway spruce with Sitka spruce, which offers limited food supplies for red squirrels.
One of the areas where red squirrels have traditionally flourished in Scotland is in the pinewoods around the Cairngorms. They are found in Nethybridge, Carrbridge and Boat of Garten, all areas where plans for housing developments have caused controversy and which conservationists say would fragment an extensive area of red squirrel habitat.
Bill Wright, of the Cairngorms Campaign, said: "The woodlands of the Cairngorms are vital to the future of red squirrels in Scotland. In the Cairngorms, and in the red squirrel stronghold of Strathspey in particular, important Scots Pine woodlands are now threatened with housing developments. The campaign is particularly pleased that the strategy recommends that information on the whereabouts of squirrel habitat is provided to planners, to ensure that squirrels are taken adequately into consideration in the planning process."
Dr Gus Jones, a spokesman for Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, said the new strategy has the potential to be a milestone for red squirrel conservation in Scotland.
He added: "When it comes to safeguarding red squirrels and the prime habitat of this endearing animal we urgently need to get things right."
© The Scotsman, 19 th February 2004
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