The Scottish Government’s forestry agency has been accused of “indiscriminate massacre” after it admitted it could have killed nearly 2,000 baby red squirrels over five years.
Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) estimated that the “theoretical maximum” of red squirrel babies – known as kits – killed when their nests were destroyed during tree felling between 2017 and 2022 was 1,976.
FLS has a duty to protect wildlife and is a partner in a major multi-agency effort called Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels. It took the protection of endangered species such as red squirrels “very seriously”, it said.
But one former FLS wildlife expert warned that red squirrels were “getting hammered”, claiming that the real number being killed could be much higher because the bodies were never found. The slaughter was a “disgrace” and a “travesty”, he said.
Campaigners questioned whether FLS did all it could to protect red squirrel nests during tree felling operations. It would be “tragic” if so many kits were dying, they said.
Red squirrels are one of Scotland’s most beloved and most threatened woodland animals. The number in Scotland has declined over decades to about 120,000, mainly because they have been pushed out by larger, non-native grey squirrels.
Red squirrels and their tree nests, known as dreys, are protected under law. Killing, injuring or capturing the animals, or damaging their dreys, are offences under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.
But in 2017 FLS was granted a licence by the Scottish Government’s wildlife agency, Nature Scot, allowing dreys to be damaged during forestry operations. On behalf of the public, FLS manages about 300 forests making up about eight per cent of Scotland’s land.
The Ferret reported in July 2022 that FLS accepted that dreys may be “lost” when it cut down trees to sell for timber. This followed allegations that up to 20 red squirrels had been illegally killed during felling in a woodland in Sutherland.
Now, under questioning in the Scottish Parliament, FLS has calculated how many red squirrel kits could have been killed across Scotland when dreys were destroyed by felling during the breeding season. It stressed that the total – 1,976 – was a “worst case scenario”.
“Expert ecological opinion and anecdotal evidence from management operations by FLS estimate the number of kits killed will be significantly smaller than the theoretical maximum,” it said.
FLS said it had “no records” of any adult red squirrels being killed. But it estimated that 2,023 had been “disturbed” during commercial forestry operations in the breeding season from 2017 to 2022.
Red squirrel kits killed by Forestry and Land Scotland
|Hypothetical maximum killed
FLS’s estimates, however, were dismissed as “bullshit” by Dave Anderson, an award-winning wildlife expert who worked for FLS and its predecessor bodies for 43 years. Disillusioned with FLS’s attitude to wildlife, he left in 2021 to become an ecological consultant.
He argued that the number of red squirrel kits killed “could be double” that calculated by FLS. Dreys and the kits they housed high up in trees were sliced to pieces by huge mechanical cutting machines and “the bodies are never found”, he said.
“Squirrels are getting hammered. It’s a travesty that this is happening on public land.”
What was going on within FLS was a “disgrace”, with staff being put under increasing pressure to ignore wildlife so that more money could be made from selling timber, Anderson alleged.
“It’s worse now than it’s ever been,” he added. “Red squirrels should be seen as an environmental asset, not a constraint.”
Checks for dreys were not done, or done inadequately, he claimed. The licence granted by NatureScot meant that FLS was effectively “marking its own homework.”
Red squirrels are ‘collateral damage’
FLS treated the deaths of red squirrels, birds and other wildlife as “collateral damage”, he told The Ferret. “It’s an indiscriminate massacre.”
Andrew Graham-Stewart, a wildlife campaigner who complained about red squirrels being killed in 2021-22 near where he lives in Sutherland, accused FLS of failing to live up to its legal responsibilities. Surveys for dreys were not carried out, he claimed.
“The relationship between NatureScot and FLS is far too cosy and little more than a tick-box exercise,” he said. “It provides little if any confidence that NatureScot provides meaningful oversight.”
The Highland campaign group, Trees for Life, warned that red squirrels had been brought to the “brink of extinction” in Scotland. “The dangers of tree felling and timber harvesting carried out while squirrel kits or pregnant females are present have been shown to be severe,” said the group’s head of nature recovery, Alan McDonnell.
“The possible deaths of almost 2,000 baby red squirrels would be tragic, and we very much hope this is not in fact the case. As the most prominent public landowner in Scotland, people naturally look to FLS to be an exemplar of best practice.”
“It is critically important that anyone carrying out forestry operations that could affect habitat or wildlife behaviour, government or otherwise, follow the evidence-based legislation and guidance that is designed to protect red squirrels,’ said the trust’s Hazel Forrest.
Red squirrel deaths ‘overestimated’
Forestry and Land Scotland defended its record on red squirrels. “Wherever possible we conduct our operations outwith the red squirrel breeding season to avoid any disturbance and most forest operations are planned and completed when squirrels are not breeding,” said an FLS spokesperson.
“However, where there is a significant operational requirement our licence from NatureScot permits us to fell trees with red squirrel dreys where the impact on the red squirrel population is acceptably low. This work is monitored on site and through annual licence returns that we submit to NatureScot.”
According to FLS, the estimated number of kits killed had been “modelled”. It was an “overestimate” because it assumed that all females breed each year, and did not take into account that they move their young from dreys.
NatureScot maintained that its licence to FLS allowed operations that could harm red squirrels “provided the activities contribute to significant social, economic or environmental benefit, and there is no other reasonable alternative.”
A spokesperson said: “We review the work carried out under licence on a regular basis. We are confident that the detailed measures included in the licence conditions minimise the impact on red squirrel populations.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/Stefonlinton.