On June 2, Belfast Zoo celebrated another conservation success when two female Red Squirrels, born at the Cave Hill site, left the zoo as part of a release programme at Silent Valley Mountain Park.
(ZooBorns shared news of the birth of the special kits in August of 2017: “Belfast Zoo Celebrates Five Kits in Red Squirrel Nook”)
Silent Valley Mountain Park was selected as the latest Red Squirrel release site, as part of a nation-wide scheme to enhance the population of this beautiful and threatened species. The site was deemed suitable due to the ongoing efforts of the Mourne Heritage Trust, Ulster Wildlife and NI Water to enhance the quality and quantity of woodland available in the area and to keep the area free of competing populations of the invasive Grey Squirrel. The Mourne Heritage Trust also had demonstrable success with the return of Red Squirrels into Mourne Park Estate, in Kilkeel, in 2014.
Red Squirrels are believed to have been present in Ireland for more than 10,000 years. Many people are familiar with this native species and its bright red coat, creamy white belly, bushy red tail and distinctive ear tufts. However, not everyone is aware that the Red Squirrel in Northern Ireland is in serious trouble. The population has declined dramatically due to loss of habitat and competition from the larger, invasive Grey Squirrel that carries a lethal pox virus.
Zoo manager, Alyn Cairns, said “Belfast Zoo first became home to Red Squirrels in 2012 when three animals arrived from the Glens of Antrim. The original aim of our Red Squirrel nook was predominantly education and interaction. However, the hope was that the squirrels would be content in the nook to breed and, with this in mind, release arrangements were developed by Belfast Zoo, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum (NISF). Since the arrival of our original trio, we have welcomed numerous kittens and have celebrated several successful re-introductions to protected areas in Northern Ireland.”
Alyn continued, “It is easy to look at the plight of the world’s wildlife and to feel like these problems are a world away from our own daily lives. However, the reality is that Northern Ireland’s very own species are facing increasing threats and the Red Squirrel is the perfect example of this. Here at Belfast Zoo we are committed to playing a leading role in wildlife conservation including wildlife on our own doorstep. The success of the latest release is the culmination of planning and dedication from all parties. It is extremely encouraging that, since the inception of the zoo’s squirrel nook, Belfast Zoo born squirrels have not only supported existing populations in Northern Ireland but have also been imperative in developing new habitats and populations. While this is the first release at Silent Valley we are optimistic that this will be the first of many.”
Dave Farnan, Area Ranger for the Mourne Heritage Trust, explains “The squirrels will live in a soft release pen in Silent Valley for the next few weeks, to acclimatise before being released onsite in mid-June. The two female squirrels will then be joined by two wild male squirrels, who are due to be trans located to the site, with relevant permissions from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Forestry Service NI. This project has been a collaborative effort of so many parties; not just Belfast Zoo and ourselves. The release pen was donated by the Woodland Trust who also donated one thousand native broad-leaved trees, to increase the woodland habitat that these squirrels call home. We have also worked closely with landowners along the Kilkeel and Annalong River who have been enthusiastic in reporting squirrel sightings and allowing Ulster Wildlife and Mourne Heritage Trust staff and volunteers to actively enhance the land for the release. We have been overwhelmed by the support we have received and I can’t wait to see Red Squirrels back in the Silent Valley.”