Delight as red squirrel kittens are born at Belfast Zoo
Five new red squirrel kittens have been born at Belfast Zoo in a major success for conservation efforts.
The population has dramatically declined due to the loss of the tree-living rodent's forest habitats and competition from the grey squirrel, which carries a lethal virus.
Zoo manager Alyn Cairns said a male rescued by the PSNI had fathered the new offspring.
He said: "Animals on our own doorstep are facing increasing threats and populations are disappearing at an alarming rate.
"We are delighted with the continued success of red squirrel nook and the zoo's continuing native species projects."
The native species has a bright red coat, creamy white belly, bushy tail and distinctive ear tufts.
Although it has been present in Ireland for more than 10,000 years, it is in serious trouble, Mr Cairns said.
The zoo's red squirrel nook became home to three animals when it first opened.
Mr Cairns added: "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."
Success on that front saw the release of some red squirrels into Glenarm Estate in Co Antrim in 2014.
The key to the formation of a successful breeding programme is genetic diversity so the zoo's breeding male was therefore released in Ballykinler in Co Down in 2015 with the aim of introducing a new breeding male to the group.
Mr Cairns added: "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."