Saturday, 25 February 2012

Red Squirrel in NI

The red squirrel is native to Northern Ireland, but its future is increasingly uncertain as the grey squirrel increases in number throughout the United Kingdom.

The red squirrel population is once again under severe pressure with local extinctions of reds and their replacement with greys being the recent trend in woodlands throughout the British Isles and other parts of Europe.
  • They do not hibernate over winter.
  • They store nuts in the ground in Autumn.
  • They can live to six years of age.
  • Young are called kittens.
  • They live in a drey made of twigs, leaves and moss built in a tree.
  • They can swim.

Threats to red squirrels include:

  • Greys are known to have spread a lethal pox disease to the reds in parts of the UK.
  • Competition for food sources from the increasing number of grey squirrels.Habitat loss and fragmentation – broad-leaved, mixed and coniferous woodland may be important red squirrel habitat.
  • Increasing volume of road traffic causing road deaths.Predators such as birds of prey, for example goshawks and pine marten.
  • Domestic cats are also a threat when squirrels go into gardens to feed.

The grey squirrel appears better able to exploit deciduous and mixed woodlands, utilising large tree seeds such as hazelnuts, acorns and beech mast before fully ripened. This ability gives the grey better breeding prospects and adult survival than the red in these woodlands.

Another factor giving greys the competitive edge is their lower susceptibility to a disease known as Squirrel Pox Virus. They may carry the disease and contribute to its transmission to red squirrels, with fatal consequences.

Instances of red squirrel death attributed to the virus has occurred in many parts of the UK.

Unlike the grey squirrel, red squirrels can survive in coniferous forests with their much smaller seeded tree species, and this specific habitat is often deemed a safe haven for reds. Neatly stripped conifer cones, perhaps piled up at a convenient feeding stump, will betray the presence of red squirrels in a conifer wood

A survey in 1995, included 261 sites, showed that while there was a great deal of overlap in the distributions of red and grey squirrels. Red squirrels clearly predominated in upland areas, where there was the greatest amount of coniferous forestry, and were virtually absent from the lowland areas to the north and south of Lough Neagh.

In contrast, grey squirrels occurred ubiquitously across the southern half of Northern Ireland and, west of the River Bann, as far as the north coast. At that time County Antrim was the only area without a large grey squirrel population.

Another survey, in 2002, looked at 80 sites mainly in interface areas, where both species were known to exist. Disturbingly, it identified an overall increase in the distribution of grey squirrels, particularly in the Limavady/Dungiven area, and to the south and west of County Antrim, where grey squirrels now occur widely between the River Bann and the Antrim plateau.

Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone still provide a relatively safe haven for red squirrels because of the large areas of forestry, although grey squirrels have either become established or replaced reds in forests in the Clogher valley and east Fermanagh.

In the same period in County Down grey squirrels have become established in Tollymore Forest Park and neighbouring Donard forest next to Newcastle, County Down; while Hillsborough forest, near Lisburn, and Narrow Water forest, near Warrenpoint, now have substantial populations of grey squirrels.

Of particular concern is the spread of greys into the Glens of Antrim, one of our strongholds for red squirrels in Northern Ireland, in the last 3-5 years.

The well known and loved red squirrel population at Belvoir Forest along the Lagan Valley in Belfast has been pushed almost to the point of extinction as greys have moved into their territory.

This gives particular cause for concern because, due to its large broad-leaves and mixed species composition, the forest is an attractive destination for grey squirrels moving along the wooded banks of the River Lagan and its feeders.

I have spoken to my colleague Craig McCoy:

"I’m not too sure about the exact range of the red squirrels. Although they were province-wide some years ago, they are steadily being pushed back by the greys. There are still a few strongholds for reds, however: Fermanagh, Ards Peninsula, Tollymore, Belvoir Forest,the Glens of Antrim and, I imagine, several others.

However, the greys are advancing on all fronts and, each year, the reds are getting fewer and their range decreasing. It is almost a lost cause. The Red is one of our Biodiversity Action Plan species and a few years ago, the Government set up a group to try to think up a strategy to protect it.

There had been some talk of controlling the greys in buffer zones around the remaining red populations but I don’t know how successful this has been. The last I heard, there had been suggestions to keep a breeding population of reds in Belfast Zoo".

Craig suggests that one idea worthy of exploration could be to create so-called "island sites", or colonies, in the Province for our red squirrels, including selective islands in Lough Erne and Strangford Lough. This would necessitate the introduction of the species to an island or even a peninsula.

I gratefully acknowledge the Ulster Wildlife Trust as a source of my information. First published in February, 2011.


Sandy said...

Encouraging local gun clubs to shoot the greys is the only way of controlling the population humanely.
This needs to be a govt. supported initiative, as council and Forest Service owned areas are where the majority of greys are. Private landowners already practice good control this way, although they are pushing water uphill as the population is soon replaced by greys from public forests.

Timothy Belmont said...

There is still a good population of reds on the Ards Peninsula. The National Trust is well aware of this and is doing all within its power to help our reds, particularly at Mount Stewart.

The Fitzgerald said...

yes m'lord but there are no red squirrels in my gardens there is however a most delightful grey squirrel.Nature will trake it course and yes, all efforts should be made to frustrate a wipe-out of the reds but i hope people won';t be misled the greys are here, its not their fault and just because no one has written chilkdern's book about them , they are still rather nice and apart from their cobflict with the Reds, generally harmless and often a delight to watch.

The Fitzgerald-himself-Charles of that ilk said...

I have a delightful grey in the garden it's not the Greys fault by all means try to ensure the survival of the reds but just because no one seems to have written children's books about how lovable they are/might be, is no reason to exterminate these their own rightthey are wuite delightful and capable of survival in urban areas.
Inever seen a Red but i see the Greys and quite like 'em!

Anonymous said...

Love to watch the Red Squirrels at Mount Stewart and a few of my photos of them are on the website.
Haven't seen so many Reds about in recent months.
Lady Mairi used to hang a feeder from the window at the house which always gave a good view of the Squirrels' antics as they went to feed. The window feeding stopped when Lady Mairi died and we have been wondering why this has not been continued by The National Trust.

Timothy Belmont said...

Anon, Sorry to hear the feeders have left with Lady Mairi.

Mind you, they are fed, I believe; there is a feeder for them at the old schoolhouse, as an example.


Unknown said...

Hi there. I live in Toronto, and earlier this year, my wife, Jean, and I were in Ireland/North Ireland where we came upon the rarely seen Red Squirrel. They actually look somewhat like our Canadian Red Squirrels, but boy, do they have long ears! We were shocked to learn that the United Kingdom and Ireland’s Red squirrels are contracting the pox virus from Grey Squirrels, and dying. As we have learned the Grey Squirrels originally came from Canada. We have posted some of our pictures and video for anyone interested at: