It seems that south-west Donegal has a thriving population of red squirrels.

But with the highly-destructive grey squirrels already having a stronghold as close as Ballybofey, there is no room for complacency. Barnesmore Gap is forming something of a natural barrier at the moment. However, it is only a matter of time until greys reach south Donegal.

With this in mind, Lough Eske resident Niamh Coughlan called a public meeting to highlight the need to protect the local population. There was a great response, with close to 60 people attending the recent meeting in Harvey’s Point. Most of those who were there reported seeing red squirrels in their locality.

Red squirrels are frequent visitors to Ms Coughlan’s own garden. Her trail cams have delighted all who have watched her red squirrel video clips.

But the Derry native who grew up in the vicinity of Prehen Wood knows all too well how quickly even a healthy red squirrel population can be decimated.

She told those gathered at the meeting how in recent years the area was entirely taken over by grey squirrels. Because the grey is bigger, stronger and carries a disease which is deadly to reds, they wipe out red squirrel populations in a very short time.

The result is not simply the replacement of one species with another. The grey causes mass destruction of woodland by stripping huge amount of bark from trees. They also strip gardens of fruit and vegetables and even go right into houses.

Ms Coughlan told of her father’s distress at finding the entire contents of his greenhouse completely stripped by grey squirrels.

The meeting was also attended by Carl Byrne of National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and Caroline Finlay who is the red squirrel officer for  the North West Region of Ulster Wildlife. They both confirmed how quickly such devastation can occur and how hard it is to rebuild the red squirrel population afterwards.

It seems the only way to control grey squirrels is by cull. Many of those present at the meeting were uncomfortable with this idea. However, it was stressed that the greys were a pest which caused massive destruction. And not just to red squirrels but to entire ecosystems. It was therefore crucial to remove them as early as possible. It was also stressed that culling would be carried out in as quick and humane a manner as possible.

Ms Finlay from Ulster Wildlife has been involved in red squirrel projects in Northern Ireland for some years. She pointed out that south Donegal was in fact in a great position. There is an opportunity to remove small numbers of greys as they arrive rather than having to carry out a mass cull after a population takes hold. But this can only work if sightings of greys are reported and swift action taken.

Get involved

Many who attended the meeting expressed an interest in monitoring and recording red squirrels with a view to determining their exact locations. This would then make it easier to monitor and protect the reds.

Everyone is encouraged to record sightings of these and indeed of other wildlife through the website www.biodiversityireland.ie

Ms Coughlan stressed that it was vitally important to record sightings of grey squirrels as soon as possible, thus enabling their removal before they breed. Mink traps were available from NPWS for this purpose. People living in areas where greys are already established are also encouraged to report sightings. Help will be given by NPWS  in removing the greys in such places.

Red squirrels can sometimes appear slightly grey in colour but they are distinguishable by their tufted ears. They are also much smaller. Grey squirrels look much bigger and stronger and are more brazen than the shyer red.

Meanwhile, anyone who is interested in getting more involved in protecting the red squirrels or in reporting greys can register their interest through the Facebook page  The Red Squirrels of Donegal. This page also has video clips of red squirrels in the Lough Eske area.

If you have a story or want to send a photo or video to us please contact the Donegal Now editorial team. Between 9am and 5pm Monday to Sunday please call 074 9112712. Between 5pm and midnight please call or text 086 792 2103. Or you can email [email protected] at any time.