Belfast Zoo is celebrating another conservation success with the birth of five Red Squirrel kittens.
The kits were spotted outside of their drey (squirrel nest) for the first time at the start of July and can now be spotted in the zoo’s Red Squirrel Nook.
The Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is a small, tree-living rodent, which is believed to have been present in Ireland for more than 10,000 years. Many people are familiar with this iconic native species, its bright red coat, creamy white belly, bushy tail and distinctive ear tufts. However, the Red Squirrel in Northern Ireland is in serious trouble. The population has dramatically declined due to the loss of their forest habitats in addition to competition from the invasive Grey Squirrel that carries a lethal pox virus.
Zoo Manager, Alyn Cairns, explained, “Here at Belfast Zoo, we care for some of the most endangered species from around the globe but the problem is closer to home than most people think! Animals on our own doorstep are facing increasing threats and populations are disappearing at an alarming rate. Recognizing this alarming trend, the Belfast Zoo team formed a native species group in 2004 to work on a number of native species projects. In 2012, following the culmination of many years of work and consultation with local wildlife organizations, we opened Red Squirrel Nook.”
Alyn continued, “The aim of the nook was predominantly to interact with visitors to educate them about this iconic native animal and the risks threatening the Red Squirrel. However, from the beginning, the hope was that the squirrels would be sufficiently content in the nook to breed. In anticipation of this, release arrangements were drawn up by Belfast Zoo, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum. The aim was for Belfast-Zoo bred [squirrel] kittens to supplement current populations in protected areas around Northern Ireland. This innovative project therefore led to the release of the first Belfast Zoo-born Red Squirrels into Glenarm Estate in 2014. This success was duplicated with the release of further animals into Ballykinler Estate in 2015.”
“Red Squirrel Nook initially became home to three animals when it first opened. The key to the formation of a successful breeding programme, and safety net population, is genetic diversity. The zoo’s breeding male was therefore released in Ballykinler in 2015 with the aim of introducing a new breeding male to the group. In January 2017, we were approached by the PSNI who had rescued a young male Red Squirrel who could not return to the wild. It is this rescued male that has now become our breeding male and the father of our latest five kittens! We are delighted with the continued success of Red Squirrel nook and the zoo’s continuing native species projects.”
More information about the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum is available at: https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/topics/bio-diversity/northern-ireland-squirrel-forum