Red squirrels released from Belfast Zoo in fight against extinction
The fight against the rapid disappearance of Northern Ireland's native red squirrel population has been given a major boost.
Four red squirrels born at Belfast Zoo have now been released into the wild in the Glens of Antrim.
It's the first time native red squirrels have been reintroduced to the wild here as part of a captive breeding programme.
The animals were released in Glenarm Estate earlier this month and further releases are planned in the wake of a successful breeding season, according to the zoo.
Red squirrels first arrived at Belfast Zoo in 2012 when Taisie, Shesk and Oisin became the first inhabitants of 'Red Squirrel Nook' after they were brought from the Glens of Antrim by the Glens Red Squirrel Group.
The first kitten was born in 2013 and this year another six squirrel kittens arrived, prompting Belfast Zoo, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum (NISF) to draw up plans for release arrangements.
Following health checks, Tivi left Belfast Zoo at the end of August, accompanied by the zoo vet and curator Alyn Cairns, and entered a purpose-built 'soft release' enclosure at Glenarm.
She was joined by a male squirrel, Alex, and they remained there for 10 days to acclimatise to the surroundings.
During this time they were monitored by gamekeepers and members of the Glens Red Squirrel Group, with input from zoo staff.
After careful assessment, the pair were released into the estate last month.
Following the success of the pair's release, an additional two kittens, named Belle and Glen, were taken to Glenarm and also successfully released.
Mr Cairns explained: "Here at the zoo we care for and conserve a variety of endangered species from across the world. However, we are equally delighted to be playing an active role in the conservation of our own wildlife. There has been extensive preparation by the zoo's native species group, the zoo vet, Glenarm Estate, Glenarm gamekeepers, Glens Red Squirrel Group, NIEA and the NISF.
"The release of four red squirrels, born at the zoo, is the culmination of 10 years of planning and commitment to the cause and we are delighted to announce that the release of the squirrels went smoothly and successfully."
Since the release of the four red squirrels, volunteers from the Glens Red Squirrel Group have continued to monitor the animals.
Chairman Daniel McAfee said: "The release was a very rewarding experience for all our very dedicated group members who took on feeding and monitoring of the squirrels while they were settling in to the new surroundings."
Chairperson of NISF Declan Looney said the release was "a success for everyone in Northern Ireland who will hopefully be able to celebrate this species for many more generations".
Belfast Zoo's Red Squirrel Nook is still home to Taisie, Shesk, Oisin and three kittens. "When these kittens are old enough, a suitable area will be selected and further releases will be performed," Mr Looney added.
The red squirrel is believed to have been present in Ireland since the end of the last Ice Age. During the 1700s it is thought to have become extinct in Ireland. During the early 1800s, red squirrels were reintroduced to Ireland from Britain and by the early 1900s were present in all counties in Ireland. The population continued to increase for a short time, then began to decline rapidly across the British Isles - possibly due to disease. Grey squirrels are currently a major threat to the survival of the red squirrel population.