Two red squirrels from Belfast Zoo have been released into Montalto Estate, in Ballynahinch, in a bid to boost numbers of this endangered mammal in County Down.
The release follows the zoo’s most successful year with this iconic species. Over the past 12 months, 10 red squirrel kittens have been born at Belfast Zoo and six animals have previously been released to the Silent Valley Mountain Park.
The latest captive-bred squirrels will provide welcome reinforcement to Montalto Estate’s small contingent of red squirrels, which are just starting to make a comeback, after years of absence.
Competition from the invasive non-native grey squirrel for food and shelter, combined with infection by the deadly squirrel pox virus, which greys transmit, steadily forced reds out of Montalto and the surrounding area and led to their decline.
But thanks to partnership efforts to remove encroaching greys and enhance the woodland with native trees, wildlife conservationists are hopeful that the new additions will flourish alongside the resurging red population, boosting numbers once more.
Shanna Rice, Red Squirrel Officer with Ulster Wildlife, said: “This is fantastic news in the race to save our much-loved red squirrel. We are delighted to have worked with Montalto’s Ranger, Wilson Johnston and volunteers from the Heart of Down Red Squirrel Group to help create a prime and safe location for reds to survive and thrive through our Red Squirrels United project. With any luck, the reds will spread into the surrounding area which would be a great conservation success story.”
The squirrels were initially housed in a soft release pen built at the estate in order to help them get used to their new surroundings. After a week, the enclosure was opened and the squirrels were given access to the woodland, where a number of feeders and trail cameras, donated by Ulster Wildlife, have been placed.
Wilson Johnston, Montalto’s Ranger has taken great pride in helping to bring back reds to Montalto, which has recently opened its doors to the public with the aim of reconnecting families with nature.
He said: “We want to encourage families to get out and explore our historic and captivating gardens, walks and trails, which are home to a variety of flora and fauna including woodpeckers, otters, pine martens, butterflies, dragonflies and squirrels. We are delighted to welcome this pair of Belfast-Zoo born red squirrels and are proud that families visiting Montalto will have the opportunity to discover these wonderful animals first hand, thanks to the work of everyone involved.
“Over the last three years, we have planted more than 30,000 trees on the estate, providing the perfect habitat for red squirrels. I am delighted to see that the new additions are already settling into their home and exploring their surroundings.”
To give the red squirrels a fighting chance of survival, Wilson is coordinating the Heart of Down Red Squirrel Group and is appealing for more volunteers to get involved.
“We already have many passionate people but we still need more to monitor reds in the surrounding area, provide them with supplementary food, report sightings of grey and stop them invading. To find out more email firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Zoo Manager, Alyn Cairns said: “Belfast Zoo first became home to red squirrels in 2012. It is extremely encouraging that since the inception of the project, Belfast Zoo-born squirrels have supported existing populations in Northern Ireland but have also been vital in developing new habitats and populations. Our squirrels have been released to sites across Northern Ireland including Glenarm Estate, Ballykinler Estate, Silent Valley Mountain Park and now Montalto Estate. Here at the zoo, we work with endangered species around the world but we are also committed to protecting wildlife found on our own doorstep. It is everyone’s responsibility to protect our biodiversity for future generations and we would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported this release including our visitors, the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum, Ulster Wildlife and the whole team at Montalto Estate including Wilson and the Heart of Down Red Squirrel Group.”
To find out more about red squirrels, to report a sighting, or to get involved in efforts to protect them, visit ulsterwildlife.org/redsquirrels