TWENTY forests in Scotland could act as “natural strongholds” for native red squirrels, research suggests.

The modelling shows the current composition of the country’s forests would protect red squirrels without the side-effects of other conservation measures including culls of the invasive grey species or man-made havens for reds.

A computer model developed by Professor Andy White, a mathematical biologist at Heriot-Watt University, found that red squirrels could use the 20 strongholds even in a worst-case scenario, if greys are allowed to “run rampant around Scotland”.

He said: “Red squirrels dominate in coniferous forests, whereas grey squirrels do better in broadleaf and mixed forests.

“The current policy is to create 19 managed strongholds for the reds, where broadleaf trees are removed and replanted with conifers that would protect their red populations. However, this would reduce tree species diversity for other species.

“Our model shows that over 20 existing forests in Scotland would act as natural strongholds for the reds. This means we don’t have to remove broadleaf species like oak.”

The research is published in the journal Nature Conservation.