Return of the red squirrels

I have a friend and neighbour who, many years ago, planted trees on most of his farm. He now has a large mixed woodland and it’s right beside an even larger one, Donadea Forest Park, which is an old demesne wood now managed by Coillte, writes Dick Warner.

Return of the red squirrels

Together they make up an extensive habitat for woodland wildlife. My friend phoned me and generously offered to give me a trailer load of ash thinnings. I was out of firewood so I was delighted. When I met him in his wood one of the first things he said was: “The red squirrels are back.” This was good news, though not particularly surprising.

For as long as I can remember his woodland and Donadea had been a stronghold for grey squirrels. It was ideal habitat for them with many large-seeded deciduous trees and they were present in extraordinary numbers. And they spread out into the surrounding countryside, travelling along tall hedgerows. One juvenile arrived in my garden, where it took up residence in a tree house that had been abandoned by my children and proceeded to damage a number of sycamore trees by stripping the bark off them.

I knew a few places where you could still get a glimpse of a red squirrel. Most of them were pine plantations, either Scots or lodgepole. And it was rumoured there was one pair left in a corner of the Forest Park, but I never saw them. Then suddenly, about eight or 10 years ago, the greys disappeared. It seemed as if it was over night but I think it actually took a couple of years. Another friend of mine lives in a house surrounded by mature oak and beech trees. He was born in the house and all his life he’d watched grey squirrels through the windows. His disappeared too but he actually saw what was happening. On two separate occasions he witnessed pine martens hunting down the squirrels.

Of course all of this is what a biologist would dismiss as anecdotal evidence. But there is plenty of hard scientific data to back it up. The National Parks and Wildlife Service published the results of an all-Ireland Squirrel Survey in 2012 and it showed a decline in grey squirrels in a number of Midland counties. And, in 2014, Sheehy and Lawton published a study which looked specifically at interactions between populations of grey squirrels, red squirrels, and pine martens.

However, back to the anecdotal stuff. Round here, the reds didn’t reappear as soon as the greys disappeared. There was a pause and the initial recolonisation by the reds was slow. In the last two or three years, there’s been an obvious acceleration and, probably as a result of a mild winter, this year the increase in red squirrel sightings is dramatic. I didn’t see any while I was collecting my timber, as they can be quite elusive little animals, but it was good to know they were there.

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