Donal Hickey: Red squirrel at risk

Donal Hickey: Red squirrel at risk

More tree-planting would help the survival of our native red squirrel, which is under serious threat from the American grey squirrel, a new study suggests. Evidence shows that the pine marten, as predator, is helping to control the population of greys.

The problem is, however, that the greys are often found in parkland areas of towns and cities which distances them from the pine marten, a forest specialist which prefers to stay well away from people and urban areas.

However, more tree-planting, with the focus on native, natural woodlands, and restoring existing forestry would enhance the pine marten’s ability to control grey squirrels and aid recovery of the red squirrels, the Queens University Belfast (QUB) study says.

Researchers again confirm that red squirrels are responding positively to the increased presence of the pine marten across Ireland and Britain.

The bigger grey squirrel which was introduced here from the US more than a century ago, has, like many other invasive species,become a threat to one of our native animals. This is balanced in a way by the predating pine marten which could be a saviour of the reds.

When greys arrive in an area where reds are found, the red population usually disappears within 15 years, according to the Department of Agriculture. The greys outcompete the reds for food and space and carry a disease called the squirrel pox virus. This disease kills the reds but has no known lasting effect on the greys.

The QUB research team calls for a greater effort help the recovery of the red squirrel, including education campaigns to increase awareness of the dangers of invasive species and the benefits of having predators such as the pine marten.

Joshua Twining, lead author of the research, says as the pine marten does not occupy urban areas anywhere within its European range, it is not likely to be the sole solution to the invasive grey squirrel.

“If action is not taken to support the pine marten in the long run, we may see a reversal of their current success and doom our native red squirrels,” he says.

Grey Squirrel
Grey Squirrel

Under the Government’s Climate Action plan, 20,000 acres of forestry (about 22m trees) are to be planted in the next two decades.

The other day I spotted a red squirrel and was amazed to see how quickly it scampered up a tree and onto other trees going from branch to branch, just like a monkey.

My sighting was in a rural, wooded area and it was definitely a red squirrel, but if you see a squirrel in an urban park, or even in the garden of a suburban home, it could well be a grey.

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