It was recently Squirrel Appreciation Day and as a lover of red squirrels, I was pleased to hear about the birth of new red squirrel kittens on the Ballykinler Training Area. For the past five years Belfast Zoo has been working together with DIO as one of the organisations involved with the red squirrel breeding programme to protect and help red squirrels adapt to the wild across forests in Northern Ireland.
These much-loved creatures have struggled to populate in Northern Ireland due to grey squirrels, who have forced them out of their home territory. Grey squirrels also carry a lethal virus that can be fatal to red squirrels.
Belfast Zoo approached DIO and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in 2015 to ask for their support in a specialist programme to increase the population of red squirrels across forests in Northern Ireland. Since then, we’ve been working closely together to breed and release red squirrels and last year the zoo released 30 red squirrels into the wilderness across six different sites.
Ballykinler was chosen as it has numerous wooded areas which divide the firing ranges to prevent troops accidentally straying into potentially dangerous areas, so there are plenty of trees for the squirrels. Because the woods divide the ranges, they are in the safety buffer between, so they are perfectly safe. Ballykinler has water on three sides and there are no grey squirrels or pine martens here, which means the area is safe for the red squirrels.
The new baby squirrels were placed in a purpose-built soft release pen. They were then released onto the managed wild habitats within the site’s training grounds after a week to allow them to take their first steps into the outside world. The kittens will spend a year adjusting to the outside world in a safe environment, before being re-captured and released into the woodlands of Northern Ireland. It is hoped that they will thrive with further successful breeding and build up a robust red squirrel population throughout Northern Ireland.
DIO plays a vital role in protecting and increasing the population of red squirrels in Northern Ireland and this is a great example of how we work closely together to protect and preserve endangered species. In future, we’re hoping to continue releasing red squirrels into the wild and expand the programme by bringing more organisations on board. We hope to identify new, suitable release sites to build upon the six that we have today, in the hope that this iconic native species can thrive again.