A conservation charity has launched an £8m public appeal to buy an estate which could become a red squirrel “superhighway”.
Woodland Trust Scotland hopes to raise the funds to purchase the 4500-acre Couldoran Estate in Wester Ross, which neighbours its existing site at Ben Shieldaig.
The two estates would be managed jointly and the charity wants to create a “mosaic of habitats” for creatures including pine martens, badgers, red squirrels, mountain hares, golden eagles and peregrines, while it is hoped wildcats may one day return.
Only a few trees cling on in crags and ravines on the largely bare Couldoran estate, but the charity aims to revive the land to become a “squirrel superhighway” allowing a range of species to move freely between woods across the wider area.
Trust director Alastair Seaman said: “Couldoran is in relatively poor condition. Once restoration is under way, we hope many of the iconic species we have at Ben Shieldaig will flood back in.
“Securing Couldoran will double the area under our management at Shieldaig, increasing potential to bring back more of the native woods that once featured across the wider landscape.”
An initial survey has revealed more than 1000 acres of new native woodland of Scots pine, aspen, downy birch, rowan, willow and alder could be created, with the rest remaining open ground.
The trust also intends to establish montane scrub species such as dwarf birch and dwarf willow that grow at high altitude to provide a fringe to the natural treeline.
It said restoring the woodland at Couldoran will help connect important nearby sites, creating a “nature highway” along Glen Shieldaig.
This would link the Shieldaig Pinewood Site of Special Scientific Interest with Rassal Ashwood Site of Special Scientific Interest, enabling a range of species from lichens and mosses to butterflies and red squirrels to move more freely.
Couldoran was once part of a network of rich woodland habitats that blanketed Scotland’s west coast, however the trust said that today the land is in poor condition with just pockets of native trees, clinging to inaccessible ravines and gorges.
Other areas of the site are infested with invasive, non-native Rhododendron ponticum, while patches of peatland, described as a “priceless carbon store”, need protection.
Seaman said: “Next door at Shieldaig we see birds such as golden eagle, peregrine, red throated diver, greenshank and golden plover. Pine martens, water voles, badgers, red squirrels and mountain hares have also been spotted.
“If we can improve canopy cover at Couldoran we expect to find many of these species moving in as their range and habitat improves and expands. Wildcats were in the area until the 1960s and we’ve heard of potential sightings more recently too.
“It’s exciting to think we might one day see the return of such a rare and endangered species. Beinn a Chait is one of the hills on the estate and the Gaelic name may reflect this was once ‘mountain of the wildcat’.
“Our vision is to manage Couldoran jointly with Ben Shieldaig as one huge mountainous estate. We want to establish a healthy and resilient mosaic of habitats across the entire catchment.
“This will include creating and restoring thriving native and montane woodland, with carefully planted trees and natural regeneration, gradually removing invasive species, and protecting peatland and blanket bog.”
The trust also wants to improve access to the area, which currently has only one informal track.
Couldoran Estate is set in the Wester Ross National Scenic Area and the Wester Ross UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, part of Scotland’s rainforest zone.
Anyone wishing to donate to the appeal can find out more at the Woodland Trust Scotland website.