Perthshire nature lovers have been put on high alert after the surprise sighting of two grey squirrels in Aberfeldy.
The news has sparked fears for the area’s protected red squirrel population.
The grey variety is known to live in the Dunkeld and Birnam area, and in lesser numbers around Dalguise. The sighting of two greys in Aberfeldy suggests the species could be expanding northwards, posing a threat to their native cousins.
The larger and more robust grey squirrels compete more successfully for food and habitat than reds, making it more difficult for them to survive.
Residents in Aberfeldy, Dunkeld and Pitlochry are now being urged to report any sightings of greys as part of the National Lottery funded Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) project, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
Tayside conservation officer Ann-Marie MacMaster warned: “We have received large numbers of reports of both species of squirrel this spring and summer, suggesting that both species have benefited from a bumper seed crop of autumn 2019, followed by a very mild winter.
“This boost could mean that grey squirrels are at an advantage and have dispersed further than they would have in a more typical year.”
She said: “We need to get a full picture of what is happening on the ground, and the only way to do this is by asking the public to help by reporting sightings of any grey squirrels seen north of Dunkeld.”
In Tayside, the project has focused on what is known as the Highland line, a 10km-wide strip running from Montrose, through Kirriemuir, Dunkeld, Crieff and out to the west of Scotland.
The SSRS initiative aims to prevent grey squirrels from becoming established north of this line, in order to secure the long-term survival of reds in the Highlands and Grampian.
In recent years, greys have largely been confined to inside the Highland Line thanks to the efforts of local estates and residents who have hosted traps in their gardens.
Ms MacMaster said: “Without help from the local community and targeted action, grey squirrels could become established in Aberfeldy, Pitlochry and beyond.
“This would undo the hard-won successes achieved in the last 10 years.”