Page last updated at 23:33 GMT, Wednesday, 29 April 2009 00:33 UK

'Send me tails of red squirrels'

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Red squirrel
Reds were in the line of fire from the 1900s to 1940s

The Highlands of Scotland are today considered by conservationists and the government as one of the last great strongholds for red squirrels.

Loss of habitat, disease and competition for food from non-native greys, drive the bid to protect them.

But for 43 years, from 1903, there was an active effort on estates across the Highlands to trap, shoot and kill reds.

By 1946, the Highland Squirrel Club had killed 102,900 squirrels and paid out £1,504 in bounties.

Tails were submitted as proof of kills.

There are several ironies in the story of the club, which was formed in 1903.

Reds were extinct, or on the brink of extinction, in the Highlands by the 1800s because of a loss of woodland habitat.

In 1844, Lady Lovat of Beaufort Estate near Beauly, succeeded in getting the government to re-introduce the squirrels to the Highlands.

Please instruct your keepers to send to me, from time to time, the tails of all squirrels killed on your estate during the year
Arthur H Duncan
Club secretary

Ian Collier, of the Highland Red Squirrel Group - a modern day organisation set up to protect reds - believed the creatures were seen by some owners of "big houses" as a "fashion accessory" to add to their landscaped gardens.

Mr Collier said: "What is ironic is that many of the red squirrels were re-introduced from England, now among the worst-hit areas for squirrel pox, which kills reds.

"Other reds were introduced from populations in Sweden."

By the 1900s, the squirrels had spread from the boundaries of the estates where they were released and were blamed for causing damage to Scots pine and other conifers.

The garden novelty had become a menace threatening thousands of acres of plantations.

The resulting cull and efforts to control squirrel numbers were recorded in annual reports and accounts of the Highland Squirrel Club, which are today a feature of the collections held by Highland Council Archive Services.

At its height, 56 estates subscribed to the club.

Grey squirrel
Greys are now the target of control efforts

Arthur H Duncan, its long-standing secretary, signed off letters informing members of annual fees and bounties paid with the sentence: "In order that you may participate in the bonus, please instruct your keepers to send to me, from time to time, the tails of all squirrels killed on your estate during the year."

Ironically, Beaufort Estate was where the most reds were killed - a total of 22,766.

A letter from the estate's office dated 31 December 1920, notifies the club secretary that a box containing 523 squirrel tails had been sent to him by train.

The same year, Cadboll Estates in Invergordon said its numbers of reds had been dramatically diminished by soldiers and dock workers going into the woods and shooting them with catapults and pea rifles.

Meanwhile, club members were also encouraged to tackle other wildlife considered vermin and a threat to livestock and crops.

Grey domination

In a letter to estates in January 1908, the secretary urged a "regular and systematic destruction" of wood pigeons and crows.

Members also played a part in feeding casualties of World War I.

March 1918, saw a plea to estate workers to collect seagull eggs to be sent free of charge to military hospitals.

By the end of World War II, the numbers of reds taken had fallen markedly from the highs of the early years.

Today, reds face threats from its larger, grey, American cousin.

First introduced to Cheshire in 1876 and to Scotland in 1892, greys compete for food and carry a disease fatal to reds.

In a final irony, 63 years after the end of the Highland Squirrel Club, the same estates where reds were actively hunted down now offer a haven for the species.

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