HEAVYWEIGHT HELP was added to the national effort to protect the red squirrel this week, as the RSPB joined the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels project.

The wildlife conservation charity has joined forces with five other charitable, government and landowning bodies in a bid to secure the future of the iconic woodland mammal by controlling its larger, non-native nemesis, the grey squirrel.

The red is the UK's only native squirrel, and its numbers have declined rapidly since the introduction of grey squirrels from North America in the 19th Century. Since 1952, 95% of red squirrels in England and Wales have been wiped out, and today 75% of the UK's remaining population is found in Scotland.

However, greys still threaten the existence of the native reds because they compete for food and habitat, and transmit the deadly squirrelpox virus. The project aims to continue to prevent the spread northwards of grey squirrels and squirrelpox via a programme of grey squirrel control in a zone running coast to coast along the Highland Boundary Fault. It will also define and map priority areas for red squirrel conservation in south Scotland.

Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Dr Aileen McLeod, said: "Scotland has adopted a pioneering approach to protecting our red squirrel population, which involves a number of organisations working together. The numbers of red squirrels in Scotland are increasing and are now returning to their former habitats. This has been most notably in the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Ayrshire, and the north-east of Scotland where people are once again seeing red squirrels visiting the bird feeders in their gardens.

"This is due to the great work being carried out by various stakeholders, such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust through the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrel's project, landowners, Forestry Commission Scotland, and volunteers who have been undertaking targeted control of grey squirrels. I am also delighted that RSPB Scotland are now involved in Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels, who will bring a wealth of knowledge to the project, which will benefit red squirrel conservation in Scotland."

RSPB Scotland director Stuart Housden said: "We are in the privileged position of owning and managing more than 80 nature reserves across Scotland, and we already posses a huge responsibility for delivering on the conservation of our native red squirrels. We have been very impressed with the work of the Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels project, as it represents what we believe is the very best chance of preventing the extinction of this species on the British mainland."