Experts at Belfast Zoo are celebrating a conservation first for Northern Ireland - the first captive breeding of a red squirrel.
The breakthrough comes as native red squirrels across Ireland and Britain face the threat of virtual extinction because of a pox virus spread by the larger non-native grey squirrels.
Zoo manager, Mark Challis said the Antrim Road complex became home to three young red squirrels named Oisin, Taisie and Sheshk in August 2012. All three names represent famous Glens of Antrim landmarks – one of the last redoubts of the red squirrels left in Northern Ireland and where local people have worked vigorously to protect the species.
Mating was witnessed earlier this summer and keepers monitored the mother’s changing behaviours, which indicated that she had a kitten, said Mr Challis.
The latest arrival was first discovered in a nest box when regular health checks were being carried out on the adults by the zoo vet, Michael Griffith. It is estimated that the kitten is approximately eight weeks old and she is now becoming more adventurous and is beginning to leave the nest box to explore her surroundings, says the zoo
Mr Challis said the zoo is delighted with this latest success: “Red squirrel nook was developed by the zoo’s native species group, who recognised the need to not only focus on the conservation of exotic animals but to highlight the plight of Northern Ireland’s native wildlife and habitats.
“In 2011, more than 90% of Tollymore Forest’s red squirrel population was wiped out by the squirrel pox virus, carried by grey squirrels, and in 2012 research suggested that red squirrels are no longer present in Belvoir Park.
“Although the aim of the nook was predominantly to provide an interactive and educational exhibit in order to raise awareness of red squirrels, we are delighted that Belfast Zoo has been able to play such an active role in the conservation of an iconic Northern Ireland species whose future is so fragile.”
Throughout the entire red squirrel nook project, Belfast Zoo has worked closely with the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum (NISF) which is chaired by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). The forum was established to bring together those dedicated to protecting the red squirrel in Northern Ireland. Members of the forum include Belfast Zoo, conservation organisations, local red squirrel action groups, local authorities and councils.
Chairperson of the NISF, Declan Looney, said: “Red squirrels are facing increasing threats in this country and the announcement of the first captive breeding in Northern Ireland, is extremely encouraging.
“The zoo, NIEA and the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum have already drawn up complex breeding agreements. The hope is that any offspring from the squirrels living at the zoo will supplement the current, safe red squirrel populations or potentially populate suitable new areas.”
Belfast Zoo’s red squirrel nook was funded by zoo visitors in 2010 and schools across Northern Ireland are therefore being asked to take part in a naming competition. A zoo spokesman urged pupils to get a red squirrel school pack and naming competition forms, for classrooms by contacting the zoo on 028 9077 6277 extension 229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can support the care of Belfast Zoo’s red squirrels by taking part in the animal adoption scheme at www.belfastzoo.co.uk/adoption