Three red squirrels trapped in the Glens of Antrim last week will form the nucleus of Northern Ireland’s first captive breeding programme for the animal.
Two female red squirrels were captured in Ballycastle and a male was caught in Glenariff Forest before being transported to their new home at Belfast Zoo on Friday.
Red squirrel populations have been declining across Northern Ireland for decades due to competition from invading grey squirrels introduced from America. Only a few individuals cling on in the city of Belfast — the last UK city to host a red squirrel population.
But in recent months, populations have plummeted still further thanks to an outbreak of the virulent squirrelpox virus. The disease is carried by grey squirrels, but is lethal to reds. Red squirrel numbers in Tollymore Forest in Co Down have crashed in the past couple of years after the disease swept through the population.
Belfast Zoo confirmed that three red squirrels had arrived to become part of a ground-breaking captive breeding programme — but stressed that they will not go on display to the public until they have settled in properly.
“This is the first time that the zoo has got so involved in an indigenous species,” zoo manager Mark Challis said.
Over the past decade, the zoo has become increasingly involved in native species conservation efforts, such as putting up birdboxes and batboxes and encouraging Junior Club members to make insect and hedgehog hibernation spaces. Since then it has teamed up with the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum to come up with a captive breeding plan.
“We were interested in doing something quite active for a native species. We all know the incredible pressure the native red squirrel is under at the moment, mostly through the invasion of the non-indigenous grey squirrel,” Mr Challis said.
“The squirrels will be living in a purpose-built breeding enclosure in the zoo. It’s a big, tall enclosure slightly set back from the visitors’ path in a quiet area of the zoo — we did a lot of research on red squirrels in other zoos. It’s not in place yet.”
The squirrels were trapped under a licence issued by Northern Ireland Environment Agency with the help of members of the Glens Red Squirrel Group. The zoo also had one of its vets on hand to ensure the animals’ wellbeing. It’s thought the animals were probably born last year and may not breed for a couple of years.
“We have drawn up quite a complex breeding agreement,” Mr Challis said.
“If and when these squirrels breed, the young squirrels will ideally be used to supplement the current and safe red squirrel populations, or they could be used to populate new areas.”
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, both north and south. 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.