The first ‘Red Squirrel Forum for South Scotland’ conference took place in Johnstonebridge on Saturday 27 October, bringing together the many volunteer groups and individuals working to protect red squirrels across the region.
The event was a significant step in our collective efforts to develop landscape-scale community action across South Scotland, which is recognised as being key to the species’ long-term future here.
Representatives from nine volunteer networks attended, covering areas from Gatehouse of Fleet in the west to the Berwickshire coast in the east. The gathering offered a chance for volunteers to share their knowledge, experiences and ideas, as well as motivate and inspire one another.
On the day we also heard presentations about Cumbria and Northumberland, where some of the only remaining red squirrel populations in England are being successfully conserved through a strong network of volunteer groups, some of which have been operating for as long as three decades. We envisage that a similar level of coverage and cooperation can be achieved in South Scotland to provide the protection that these inter-connected red squirrel populations need to survive.
So what’s next for the Red Squirrel Forum for South Scotland? Firstly, the event provided an opportunity to reflect on the strengths and achievements of the existing volunteer networks, most notably:
- Through targeted grey squirrel control work, many parts of South Scotland are still home to viable red squirrel populations, despite the continuing presence of grey squirrels and localised squirrelpox outbreaks.
- The number of individuals and groups willing to take on the challenge has grown considerably in the past two years, thus providing broader coverage across the region giving greater protection to the region’s red squirrels.
- There is great affection for red squirrels in local communities, as well as support for the action necessary to protect them.
The Forum also recognised that volunteers face several challenges to establishing widespread protection for red squirrels in the region, including:
- Some areas such as the Nith Valley face continuous incursion by grey squirrels. Comprehensive and coordinated grey squirrel control will be a top priority in these areas for the foreseeable future.
- Humane and effective grey squirrel control requires time, skill and commitment. Finding and retaining volunteers for this work in rural areas can prove challenging.
- Protecting red squirrels in South Scotland will require continuous effort, and therefore requires long-term funding.
- Awareness amongst the general public remains relatively poor, with a surprising number of people not recognising the difference between the red as an iconic native species and grey squirrels as introduced and invasive, thus making the expansion of red squirrel conservation work so necessary.
Discussions throughout the day led to the beginnings of an overall vision and action plan for red squirrel conservation volunteering in South Scotland:
- South Scotland urgently needs more local volunteer groups to provide the widespread coverage that the region’s red squirrels need to survive. The groups need to be able to operate independently, while remaining connected. Continued communication and skills-sharing will be important in the coming years.
- Volunteer groups that are inclusive and welcoming to anyone with a passion for protecting Scotland’s red squirrels will build the strongest networks. Although grey squirrel control work is crucial, there are many other ways for people to get involved, for instance carrying out surveys, record keeping and fundraising.
- There is a need for more public engagement in the region. In particular, volunteers who can educate and inspire young people can help to ensure that there is a long-term future for South Scotland’s red squirrels.
It’s inspiring to be around so many dedicated people all working together to ensure the long-term future of one of Scotland’s most loved species. Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is supporting volunteer networks in South Scotland, providing them with the equipment and training they need through our ‘Developing Community Action’ initiative. We’re also working to establish new volunteer networks in the region, which will instantly benefit from becoming part of such a welcoming red squirrel volunteering community.
You can read a full report on the Red Squirrel Forum for South Scotland website.