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These days most of us are probably aware of the plight of the red squirrel. Reds are our only native squirrel but numbers have been in steady decline for years, due to the spread of their invasive grey cousins.

Pine marten © Terry Whittaker / 2020 Vision

Red squirrels find it difficult to compete with greys for food and habitat, but it is the squirrelpox virus which the greys carry – harmless to them, and deadly to the reds – which has really affected their numbers, creating the very real fear that they could disappear altogether.

Pine martens are another iconic species that has been in decline, persecution and habitat loss led to their near extinction in the UK. But since being legally protected the pine marten has made an incredible recovery and they are once again reclaiming their ancestral woodlands. And as they recolonise areas, something remarkable is happening. Where pine martens go, red squirrels follow.

Red squirrels and pine martens have lived together in Scotland for thousands of years and over that time each has adapted to the other. Red squirrels are lighter and faster than grey squirrels, they can climb higher into the treetops to escape predation, they instinctively recognise pine martens, and they know to avoid them.

For greys, without those thousands of years of genetic experience, the pine marten is an unknown.

Greys often don’t recognise the danger martens represent, and even when they do, they are too slow and heavy to escape the agile, deadly predators. So as pine martens move back into their old haunts they find tasty grey squirrels waiting for them, and create conditions for reds to return and thrive again.

Help us add Cumbernauld’s red squirrels to the map by taking part in the Great Scottish Squirrel Survey. Be careful – grey squirrels can often have ginger fur, especially on their faces! Photo by Jo Foo

It takes a few years for this process to take place, but researchers are increasingly confident that there is a real link between the presence of pine martens and the return of the red squirrel. Predator and prey working together in a fine balance.
It’s exciting and positive news – not least because Cumbernauld Living Landscape has camera trap footage of pine martens in the town’s woodlands. So keep watching the treetops, the next squirrel you see in Cumbernauld might be a red!

Paul Barclay, Project Officer


Rory Syme