Keep an eye out, it's squirrel season

This is a good time to look out for squirrels, which are busy storing up food for the winter, writes Donal Hickey. 

They can be seen scampering around wooded areas collecting nuts, seeds, and berries for storage in shallow pits close to their nests.

With a huge bushy tail as long as its head and body combined, the native red squirrel is a joy to watch as it jumps from tree to tree and travels along the branches at high speed.

I once saw a squirrel leap from a tree onto the top of a telegraph pole and then shoot across the wire to a pole on the other side of the street before disappearing into tree branches. A natural tightrope walker.

Around now, you are likely to see more red squirrel activity on the ground. What they are doing is important for the forestry habitat as they help spread seeds over large areas at a crucial time in autumn.

At one time, the red squirrel was found all over Ireland, but is now seen mainly in that swathe of countryside along the west coast from Cork to Donegal.

The American grey squirrel, introduced here more than 100 years ago, has established a foothold in the eastern side of the country and has been seen as far as south as Mitchelstown, Co Cork. Reds have become very scarce in the Dublin area.

In Britain, the grey has colonised large sections of Scotland and the north of England. A culling operation is underway in parts of Britain to eliminate the grey, which can spread disease and out-compete the red. The grey is also more aggressive and forces the red squirrel out of its natural habitat.

Some people are questioning the need for a cull and are urging UK wildlife authorities to look at what’s happening in Ireland. Here, the pine marten is regarded as a natural enemy
of the grey squirrel. There’s evidence that in areas where the protected pine marten is present, there are no grey squirrels and red squirrels have even started to return to such areas.

Rather than needlessly killing animals, often at huge expense, why not allow nature take its course, let predators do their job and restore nature’s balance?

There’s a similar situation here with American mink which are, reportedly, not seen where otters are present. Also, there’s evidence from Scotland that white-tailed sea eagles, now also being introduced here, prey on mink.

The Irish red squirrel does not hibernate but can remain in its nest (drey) for a week or more in bad winter weather, emerging only to make quick trips to its nearby food hoard which can sustain it for a few months.

A problem, however, is that stronger grey squirrels can raid hoards, leading to starvation for the reds.


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