Early success for Red Squirrel project in Mayo


Belleek woods, outside Ballina, had no squirrels until five were transferred there by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) in 2007.

Four more squirrels have been released into the woods so far this year and, already, there is evidence of successful breeding, with at least two adults having given birth to litters of young squirrels known as kittens.

If conditions are favourable, the squirrels can breed up to twice a year, giving birth to two or three kittens at a time.

Visiting the project, Mr John Gormley, TD, Minister for the Environment, Heritage & Local Government said he was delighted with the early success. "The Red Squirrel is one of Ireland's most endangered mammals - it is declining at about 1% per annum, so I am particularly pleased to see how well this pilot project is working" - said the Minister.

The spread of the North American grey squirrel is largely responsible for the red's decline. A national survey - carried out in 2007 - showed that the grey is now found in 26 out of 32 counties. Mayo is one of the last grey squirrel-free counties.

Transferring red squirrels to safe areas, where the greys are not prevalent, is one of the conservation actions being investigated as a possible tool to secure the future of the species in Ireland.

Minister Gormley went on to acknowledge the cooperation that has made the squirrel translocation project possible.

"Although the translocation project is being overseen and funded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, it is very much a collaborative effort with the local community and with Coillte - the landowner" - the Minister said - "and, as such, provides a model which other projects could follow."

More squirrels will be transferred to Belleek during the year. The NPWS's animal ecologist Dr Ferdia Marnell explained - "This is an exciting development so early in the project, but we still need to transfer another 10 animals to provide a good genetic mix for the population. After that, follow-up monitoring will continue for another two years to make sure the squirrels have well and truly established."

Two pilot translocations of red squirrels are underway in Ireland - one to Belleek Wood outside Ballina, with the other in Connemara.

With funding from NPWS, a team from NUI Galway, led by Dr Colin Lawton, is monitoring the squirrels at both sites. They will determine breeding success, habitat use and dispersal patterns over a 2-year period.

At the end of the study, they will advise on the potential value of further translocations for red squirrel conservation in Ireland. No further translocation will be licensed in the meantime.

The red squirrel is a protected species and capturing and moving them is subject to licences from NPWS. Such translocation projects must also follow strict international guidelines (from the IUCN).

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will shortly publish a Species Action Plan (SAP) for the red squirrel. The new plan outlines the conservation actions needed to secure the future of the red squirrel throughout the island of Ireland over the coming five years. It is a collaborative effort between the NPWS in the south and the Environment and Heritage Service [EHS] in Northern Ireland.