Made in Belfast: first native red squirrel kitten born at Belfast zoo
Supporters of our native squirrel are celebrating after the first baby – known as a kitten – was born in captivity.
Belfast Zoo has welcomed its first red squirrel kitten just over a year after it became home to three of the indigenous breed.
The number of red squirrels has plummeted to worrying levels, despite being native to Ireland.
The loss of their habitat – Ireland's forest cover has gone from 80% to less than 10% – and the introduction of the North American grey squirrel have combined to deplete their number.
The grey cousins compete for food as well as carry a virus which the red squirrel has no immunity to.
In 2011 it emerged that more than 90% of Co Down's Tollymore Forest population of red squirrels had been wiped out by the virus.
And research carried out last year suggested that there were no red squirrels at all in Belvoir Park Forest.
Chairman of the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum Declan Looney said members were delighted by the birth.
"Red squirrels are facing increasing threats in this country and the announcement of the first captive breeding in Northern Ireland is extremely encouraging," he said.
"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 became home to three red squirrels named Oisin, Taisie and Sheshk from the Glens of Antrim in August 2012.
It set up its red squirrel nook through donations from zoo visitors both to educate the public and to try and breed the animals.
This first squirrel kitten is eight weeks old and is female.
Zoo manager Mark Challis is also celebrating the birth.
"We are delighted that Belfast Zoo has been able to play such an active role in the conservation of an iconic species whose future is so fragile," he said.