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Belfast Zoo leads successful conservation effort for native red squirrels

Red squirrels in Belfast Zoo

In a significant conservation effort, Belfast Zoo has been actively involved in the breeding and release of native red squirrels, a species that has faced a dramatic decline over the past decades.


The zoo, in collaboration with multiple organisations including the National Trust, Ulster Wildlife, and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, has successfully released 36 red squirrels into the wild since 2013.



The red squirrel, known for its vibrant red fur and tufty ears, has been a part of the local wildlife for over 10,000 years. However, habitat loss and the spread of disease by invasive grey squirrels have severely impacted their numbers. Recognising this, Belfast Zoo initiated a conservation breeding program in 2013 to help restore the red squirrel population.


The latest release of red squirrels occurred earlier this year at Carnfunnock Country Park on the East Antrim coast. Two squirrels were released on April 26th, and a third was released on May 4th, 2024. The squirrels are released only when they reach the optimum age and weight to ensure their survival in the wild.


Belfast Zoo continues to maintain a breeding pair in the zoo's red squirrel nook, which also serves as an educational facility.



Alyn Cairns, the zoo manager, expressed his optimism about the project's success. He highlighted that the zoo's red squirrels have not only supported existing populations in Northern Ireland but have also helped establish new habitats and populations across the region. He said:


“Belfast Zoo first became home to red squirrels in 2012 when three animals arrived from the Glens of Antrim. The original aim of red squirrel nook was predominantly education and interaction. However, the hope was that the squirrels would be content in the nook to breed and release arrangements were developed by Belfast Zoo, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum (NISF).


“It is extremely encouraging for Northern Ireland red squirrel populations, that since the inception of the project, Belfast Zoo born squirrels have supported existing populations in Northern Ireland but have also been vital in developing new habitats and populations. Our squirrels have been released to sites across Northern Ireland including Glenarm Estate, Ballykinler Estate, Silent Valley Mountain Park, Dunnywater and Carnfunnock park.”



The released squirrels are initially housed in soft release pens to help them adapt to their new surroundings before being fully released into the wild. They are then later released into the woodlands that have been made safe for them to thrive and flourish in. Many release locations also have feeders and camera trails so that their progress can be monitored.


The conservation efforts have been bolstered by the support of various organisations and groups, including the Mourne Heritage Trust, NI Water, and local biodiversity groups. The success of these efforts was highlighted in a 2020 report by Ulster Wildlife, which stated that red squirrels can now be found in every county in Ireland, marking a significant achievement for the conservation of this species.



Belfast Zoo's commitment to protecting and restoring native species is a testament to the power of collaborative conservation efforts. The zoo continues to play a pivotal role in ensuring the survival and growth of the red squirrel population, contributing to the biodiversity and natural heritage of the region.


A spokesperson for Belfast Zoo concluded:


“This has been a good news story for us, and we hope it will continue to increase the population of these adorable animals who bring so much to the biodiversity of our island.”


For those interested in supporting the conservation of red squirrels, Ulster Wildlife can be contacted at 028 9045 4094 or via email at membership@ulsterwildlife.org.


Facts


• The red squirrel, a small tree-living mammal, is believed to have been present in Ireland for 10,000 years.

• The zoo announced the first captive breeding of a red squirrel in 2013.



• In the last 10,000 years, the area of Ireland covered with forests has dwindled from 80% to below 10%.

• There are many plants and animals in Northern Ireland that are not from here, some were introduced deliberately and some by accident. However, many of these species, including the grey squirrel, quickly became invasive. Six greys were deliberately introduced to County Longford in 1911.

• Grey squirrels carry a disease called squirrel pox virus. They have developed immunity, but red squirrels have not. Grey squirrels also compete for food.

• In 2011, more than 90%o of Tollymore Forest’s red squirrel population was wiped out due to squirrel pox virus, showing the fragility of Northern Ireland red squirrel populations.

• The Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum is made up of Belfast Zoo, conservation organisations, local red squirrel action groups, local authorities and councils.

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