FORESTRY officials are sprucing up Europe's largest man-made woodland to provide a protected haven for the endangered red squirrel in the North-East.

Plans to plant stretches of oak trees to contrast the vast expanse of conifers in the 155,000-acre Kielder Forest, in Northumberland, have been ditched in a bid to stem the grey squirrel tide.

The Forestry Commission has re-appraised its 50-year planting plans, including the introduction of corridors of broadleaf trees, after the intervention of scientists.

Kielder is the last stronghold of the rapidly receding native red squirrel population in England, as the larger grey, introduced from North America 100 years ago, is now almost universally dominant.

The vast forest is estimated to be home to 12,000 reds, three-quarters of the surviving native squirrel species.

Recent research by scientists at Newcastle and London Queen Mary universities revealed that red squirrels survive better in spruce forests, while the grey out-performs the red in oak woodland.

The Forestry Commission will, therefore, continue its native woodland plan at Kielder, but by planting so-called "squirrel neutral" species, such as birch, rowan and willow, instead of oak.

Conservationists have welcomed the decision, which effectively ensures Kielder will remain the last refuge for the red squirrel in England.

Bill Burlton, environment forester at Kielder, said: "Spruce trees may not be native to England, but the fact is that reds can find food and survive in conifer forests far better than greys, which out-compete it in oak woods.

"Because of this we recognise that Kielder is the last hope of maintaining a viable red squirrel population in England.

"Overall, the project has revealed that we are doing the right things in terms of creating a buffer against the greys.

"But our oak planting would have been very bad news indeed.

"We've amended our strategy to plant small seed broadleaf trees instead, such as birch and rowan, and we'll plant oak in other parts of the district."

The aim is now to identify the most suitable parts of Kielder to make them as "red friendly" as possible.

Peter Lurz, of Newcastle University's Centre for Life Sciences, said: "The only practical way of stemming the grey tide is to create habitats in which reds can survive and greys cannot out-compete them.

"So that's why this decision to manage vast areas of Kielder in their favour is so important."