In the largest cull of a mammal ever seen in the UK, ten of thousands of grey squirrels in northern Scotland are expected to be legally killed by landowners in the £1.3 million government-sponsored Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project.

Conservationists at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, one of the organisations involved in the project, say that their aim is to protect the UK’s red squirrels from extinction by preserving their remaining stronghold in the Highlands of Scotland.

The trust’s conservation director, Stuart Brooks, claims that red squirrels could be extinct on mainland Britain within 30 years unless action is taken. Environment minister Michael Russell echoed this sentiment: ‘We have only a short time to save the red squirrel. It’s one of our most beautiful and valuable native species, and its loss would be absolutely unforgiveable.’

Grey squirrels, imported by US landowners in the 1870s, have taken over their red counterparts’ food sources and habitats. They also spread the squirrelpox virus, a disease that does not affect them but is highly contagious and generally fatal to red squirrels. Red squirrel numbers north of the border have been in decline for years, particularly following two recent outbreaks of squirrelpox which have very badly affected Scottish red squirrels.

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