Efforts are being made to protect red squirrels
Scotland's native population of red squirrels could soon be wiped out as the stronger grey squirrel continues to drive them out of their natural habitat, according to conservationists.
Conservation officers claim burgeoning numbers of grey squirrels - imported from North America in the 18th Century - could see reds wiped out in Britain completely by 2010.
They say they are trying to stem the tide in some of the last "red strongholds" in the south of Scotland but insist their work is in jeopardy because vital funding will soon run out.
Of the UK's 160,000 remaining red squirrels, 75% of them can be found in Scotland but there are millions of greys.
Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders were among the last areas free of grey squirrels and three years ago conservation officers were appointed to keep it that way.
Their role has been to monitor red squirrel numbers, establish conditions for their long-term survival and to guard against the grey invasion.
However, funding for the conservation work runs out in July and - while applications are in to organisations like Scottish Natural Heritage - the outcome is uncertain.
'Improve the habitat'
Dumfries and Galloway conservation officer Zoe Smolke said at least two years' additional work is vital to secure the red squirrels' most favourable habitats and help protect them against the inexorable march the greys.
She said: "One of the main achievements of the project over the past three years has been to identify the best areas, the best habitats, for red squirrels in the future for when greys move into the area.
"What we hope to be doing is going into these forests and assisting and giving guidance to the managers and trying to produce plans that will really improve the habitat over the next 20 years."
The advance of the grey squirrel has been put down to its more efficient use of available food, the fact that it produces more offspring and is also considered to be generally more robust than its cousin.
Grey squirrels, nicknamed tree rats in their native home in the US, are also carriers of the parapox virus - a disease to which they are immune but one that is fatal to reds.