Red squirrel conservation strategies which favour non-native conifer plantations are likely to negatively impact the species, research has warned.
The study led by Queen’s University Belfast and the University of St Andrews contends that native predators in native woodland, and not conifer plantations, are the key ingredients for red squirrel survival in Britain and Ireland.
This contradicts existing conservation strategies that promote non-native conifer planting and instead highlights the value native predators can deliver to native biodiversity.
Academics, along with Ulster Wildlife and citizen scientists, used camera traps to survey more than 700 sites across Northern Ireland over a five-year period for red squirrels, grey squirrels and pine martens.
Timber plantations are often promoted as being beneficial to red squirrel conservation but our results show that they will have a detrimental effect on the species in the futureDr Joshua P Twining, Queen's University
The results show that with the recovery of the pine marten, conifer plantations planted under the guise of protecting the red squirrel are likely to have a damaging impact on the species’ survival.
The research, published on Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and funded by the British Ecological Society, has shown the presence of pine marten increases red squirrel occurrence across the landscape, especially in native broadleaf woodlands.
This is because the pine marten suppresses the grey squirrel regardless of habitat.
However, this effect is reversed in large non-native conifer plantations, where the pine marten reduces the occurrence of red squirrel.
Dr. Joshua P Twining, lead author from Queen’s, said restoration of native predators is a critical conservation tool to combat the ongoing biodiversity crisis.
He said this must be in conjunction with maintenance and protection of natural, structurally complex habitats.
“This has global implications given the ongoing recovery of predators in certain locations such as mainland Europe,” he said.
“It also shows that the current national red squirrel conservation strategies that favour non-native conifer plantations are likely to have the opposite impact to what is intended.
“Timber plantations are often promoted as being beneficial to red squirrel conservation but our results show that they will have a detrimental effect on the species in the future.”
Dr Chris Sutherland, from the University of St Andrews, said: “This research demonstrates the enormous value of large-scale data collected through public participation. Combining this data with state-of-the-art analytical techniques has generated important conservation insights that until now have been overlooked.”
The UK and Ireland has some of the lowest forest cover in Europe and over 75% of it is made up of non-native timber plantations.
Dr Twining added: “This work shows that we need to develop an alternative national conservation strategy for the red squirrel, focused on planting native woodlands alongside continued pine marten recovery.”