Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels

Frequently asked questions

Click on the questions below to find out more about the plight of the red squirrel in Scotland, what the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels project is doing and why action is necessary now.




The only squirrel species native to the UK.   Introduced to the UK in 19th Century.
Looks like

The red squirrel has a white stomach and chest, with fur ranging in colour from almost black to chestnut or light brown. They have long ear tufts but these may be missing in summer.


As the name suggests, the grey squirrel's fur is mainly grey but with a white underside. Tail hairs are grey with a characteristic white fringe. Greys do not have ear tufts.


Reds eat mainly tree seeds but also buds, flowers and shoots of deciduous and coniferous trees. Fruits, berries, caterpillars, fungi and even birds’ eggs also feature in their diet.


Greys share a large number of food sources with red squirrels; however, they can also eat seeds with high tannin content (such as acorns) which red squirrels cannot digest.

Red squirrels live in conifer forests and broadleaved woodlands.   Greys can be found in oak, beech, sweet-chestnut, horse-chestnut, sycamore and conifer woodlands.

The main threat to red squirrels is the spread of the invasive non-native grey squirrel. Grey squirrels compete more successfully than red squirrels for food and habitat, they are larger and more robust, and can digest seeds with high tannin content, such as acorns, more efficiently. 

Habitat loss has also contributed to the red squirrel’s decline. Habitat loss and fragmentation occurs when areas of woodland are destroyed or become separated by development and changing land-use. This leads to isolated areas which cannot sustain viable populations of wildlife, including red squirrels. 

The squirrelpox virus is fatal to red squirrels but is carried by grey squirrels without causing them any harm.

This virus, carried by grey squirrels without causing them harm, is fatal to red squirrels. The virus produces scabs in and around the eyes, nose, mouth, feet, ears and genitalia. The infected squirrel is very quickly unable to see or to feed properly and rapidly becomes malnourished. The disease is highly virulent in red squirrels and kills within 15 days of infection. Squirrelpox is present in southern Scotland.

A vaccine against squirrelpox is in development but it could be many years before this is available in the affordable and easily dispensable form necessary to assist red squirrel conservation.

At this time, to protect red squirrels from infection with squirrelpox it is necessary to use targeted and co-ordinated grey squirrel control to keep densities of grey squirrel very low in carefully chosen target areas in south Scotland. The project’s earlier work has shown that this approach can work to help red squirrels not only to survive, but to thrive, even returning to some areas from which they had been absent for many years.

If you find a dead red squirrel at any time, it can be sent for post mortem to find out what the cause of death was. If the squirrel looks obviously diseased, please also contact your nearest SSRS Project Officer in case there is a need for more information or follow-up action.

Even a healthy looking red squirrel that has been killed by a vehicle, for instance, can be useful for the team at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies as part of their long-term study of diseases and parasites in Scotland's wild-living red squirrels. 

A copy of our guidance on how to package and label the squirrel carcase and the address to send it to can be downloaded here: Squirrel Post-Mortem Guidance Note. Please follow the directions carefully to ensure your parcel reaches its destination intact.

CAUTION: Please wear disposable gloves or put your hand into a polythene bag to handle dead squirrels!

Tell me about this disease.

Over the years conservationists from Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels have had a number of queries accompanied by photographs of red squirrels with a distinctive skin disease. Since 2005 a few of these animals were caught and given a detailed post mortem at the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies, when the organism causing the disease was identified as similar to Mycobacterium lepromatosis , a bacterium causing leprosy. 

This is a skin disease of unmistakeable appearance: there is gross swelling and loss of hair around the snout, lips, eyelids, ears, genitalia and sometimes feet and lower limbs. This bare skin has a “shiny” appearance. The squirrel is usually in generally poor body condition and may have a heavy burden of parasites like fleas, ticks and mites.

What is the risk to humans?

The risk to people from squirrel leprosy is negligible. The bacteria that cause leprosy cannot survive outside the body and evidence shows that 95% of people are naturally unable to get leprosy, even if they are exposed to the bacteria that causes it. Taking sensible precautions such as avoiding physical contact with wild animals and washing your hands before eating will further minimise any risk.

What should you do if you see a red squirrel with suspected leprosy?

Professor Anna Meredith at the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies is keen to see how widespread this disease is in the wild. Therefore notify your nearest Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) Project Officer of your observation. 

Is leprosy a danger to Scotland’s red squirrel population?

We do not believe that leprosy is sufficiently common to pose a danger to more than just individual red squirrels. The main disease threat remains Squirrelpox virus, which if not managed, could potentially enable grey squirrels to replace reds throughout Scotland. 

For more information, please see our Red Squirrel Leprosy information note.

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is a project to stop the decline of Scotland’s core red squirrel populations by combatting the further spread of the non-native grey squirrel into areas that are currently home only to red squirrels and working closely with local communities to improve conditions for red squirrels across Scotland.

Phase Three of the project runs over two years, from 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2016, and aims 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 as it spreads gradually northwards
  • Evolve a long-term, cost effective means of controlling the spread of the non-native grey squirrel
  • Secure greater participation by landowners and volunteers in our grey squirrel control effort
  • Continue to monitor red and grey squirrel distributions across Scotland

Scotland is home to around 120,000 red squirrels and, with 75% of the UK population found here, you stand a better chance of seeing them here than almost anywhere else in the country. 

View a map of where to see red squirrels

The Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 provides for duty of care for animals in captivity (live-trapped animals). This makes it an offence to inflict, or allow others to inflict, cruelty or abuse on a grey squirrel held captive.

The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) makes it illegal to release, or allow to escape to the wild, any captive grey squirrel.

The (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order 1937 makes it an offence to keep a grey squirrel in captivity except under licence.

The Grey Squirrels (Warfarin) Order 1973 does not allow the use of warfarin on grey squirrels for the purpose of tree protection in Scotland.

This is not a definitive guide to the legislation and you should refer to the original legislation if you need more details.

The creation of red squirrel sanctuaries could allow red squirrels to survive in small pockets across Scotland, however the SSRS project is trying to project the red squirrel as a wild native Scottish mammal. The project collaborates with Forestry Commission Scotland in developing ‘red squirrel strongholds’; large areas of habitat which suit red squirrels but which are managed so as to make them unattractive to grey squirrels. 

Captive breeding programmes are very expensive, laborious and unnecessary while we still have red squirrels spread widely across Scotland. Red squirrels also tend to be difficult to breed successfully in captive conditions. 

Translocations of red squirrels for release elsewhere may sometimes be appropriate in places where forests have been restored to areas where earlier habitat destruction has caused the local extinction of red squirrels and there is no reasonable prospect of the squirrels making their own way to the new forests. Licensing must be sought from Scottish Natural Heritage for translocation projects.

A research project in Ireland has shown that the recovering Irish pine marten population is causing the grey squirrel to decline in range and numbers, with a complete recovery of red squirrels following rapidly.

A new project has been launched by the University of Aberdeen to investigate whether the same effect is occurring in Scotland in areas where the pine marten is recovering, where differences in ecological conditions may make the outcome different to that in Ireland. The project will run until the end of 2017 and is led by Dr Emma Sheehy and Professor Xavier Lambin. 

Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels is a partnership project led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and includes Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Land and Estates and the Red Squirrel Survival Trust. The partnership is also supported by an extensive network of over 400 landowners covering well over 4,000 square kilometres and a large workforce of ordinary people volunteering their efforts.

See who is involved with the SSRS project

The work of Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels relies heavily upon the generosity of the many individuals who want to play their part in saving the red squirrel. If you would like to make a donation, please follow the link below.

In addition to individual donors and project partners, our work is also supported by a range of grant-making foundations, the Landfill Communities Fund and European Union funding.

Click here for a full list of funders Make a donation

We use live-trapping in cage-traps according to best practice guidelines, and then dispatch the animal in the most humane way possible. Our management methods are designed with public safety and minimising any animal distress uppermost in our consideration. The methods we have adopted have been deemed the most humane by the European Scientific Panel on Animal health and Welfare (2005).

No. At this time halting further spread of grey squirrels at strategically targeted points is the only viable option to protect existing strong red squirrel populations across Scotland. 

Habitat improvements can assist red squirrels to do better than grey squirrels in carefully chosen areas. Grey squirrel contraception is the subject of research, as is the development of a squirrelpox vaccine but these are a long way from being ready for use and may be insufficient on their own. 

There are suggestions that in some areas of Scotland pine martens may have a role in keeping grey squirrels from remaining established in local habitat, thereby allowing red squirrels to recolonise the areas they have vacated. Pine martens are recovering from persecution in Scotland and potentially may play a greater role in red squirrel conservation in the future as they spread further into their former range. Current research by scientists from Aberdeen University is aimed at detecting any such effect, as this attractive native predator gradually resumes its natural place in the woodland ecosystem.

Seen a red or grey squirrel recently? Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels needs your help. Please report your squirrel sighting using our dedicated online sightings page. This will help us get a clear picture of red and grey squirrel distribution across Scotland.

This year's sightings


Project partners 

Scottish Wildlife Trust Forestry Commission Scottish Land and Estates
Scottish Natural Heritage Red Squirrel Survival Trust RSPBHeritage Lottery Fund