Belfast Telegraph

Back from dead: Red squirrels thriving at new sanctuary in Derry city

The red squirrels making a home at Derry City Cemetery
The red squirrels making a home at Derry City Cemetery
The red squirrels making a home at Derry City Cemetery
Donna Deeney

By Donna Deeney

Red squirrels are thriving in Derry City Cemetery - in contrast to other parts of Northern Ireland where numbers have reached dangerously low levels.

Local people have played a big part in their unexpected revival, by feeding them and nailing boxes to trees to give them shelter.

The red is Ireland's only native squirrel species, and was once a common sight.

The main cause in their decline has been the introduction of grey squirrels from America.

Cormac McKinney from Ulster Wildlife said: "In order for the red squirrel to thrive it is essential to control the grey squirrel and thanks to the River Foyle the grey has been kept at bay from the Derry side until recently.

"If the grey does get in and pass on infection it will wipe out the red, but the supplementary feeding is so important to getting the red squirrels into a good breeding condition so they can have bigger litters.

"This is what has been happening at the City Cemetery. Local people have been building boxes, stocking them and watching out for greys and reporting that to us so we can control the greys.

"We are also using the camera traps to monitor the number and condition of the reds and it is very clear that the number of reds in the City Cemetery has definitely increased over recent times."

Mr McKinney said that while staff haven't been able to quantify numbers, there has been recolonisation of Prehen and St Columb's Park woodlands.

He added: "The red squirrels are no different from humans in that when they come to a certain age they will be driven out by their parents, so they have to set up their own home.

"A red squirrel can quite easily travel 10 or 15 kilometres in a day and most travel at least two kilometres, so if you have a nice wooded area like along the Foyle and Faughan, the red will travel along those woodlands."

The erection of the cameras by Ulster Wildlife has allowed the numbers of red squirrels to be monitored, and it has also led to a reduction in incidents of anti-social behaviour. Seamus Breslin from History in the Headstones City Cemetery tours said the fall in vandalism and anti-social behaviour is noticeable.

He said: "There used to be quite an issue with anti-social behaviour - young ones driving cars, breaking headstones, lifting wreaths and ornaments, which was very upsetting to see, but since the cameras went up it has made an incredible difference.

"The presence of the red squirrels is attracting huge numbers of people to the cemetery, even people who don't have any loved ones buried here.

"It is lovely to stand and watch the squirrels if you are lucky enough to see them and they have even come to the attention of Chris Packham from Springwatch earlier this year, but they nearly missed them.

"They were just about to give up, pack up and go home when we started talking about The Undertones.

"While we were talking, all of a sudden the reds appeared and the film crew got their camera shots."

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