The interest in south Donegal’s red squirrels and the willingness to preserve them was evident in the great turnout at the inaugural red squirrel ramble.
This event which took place at the Bank Walk, Donegal Town on Saturday was hosted by the Red Squirrels of Donegal group. The walk was led by Ulster Wildlife’s Michael Stinson who is red squirrel officer for Tyrone and Fermanagh.
Around 60 people of all ages attended.
Mr Stinson explained that the Bank Walk was an excellent environment for red squirrels. This was because the mixed woodland suited their varied diet which included nuts, blackberries and fungi.
“They are quite adaptable,” he said.
The wildlife officer explained that in autumn, red squirrels hid their food either by burying it or putting it in holes in trees. Contrary to common belief, they do not hibernate. However, red squirrels do slow down significantly to conserve energy.
By now, most will have had their first litter of the year. Mr Stinson told those gathered that red squirrels could have up to eight young per litter but the survival rate was not high.
In response to a question about feeding squirrels at home, he said: “Squirrels in this part of Ireland have a reasonable amount of food. But feeding helps them, especially in winter. It leaves them in good condition. They will have more young and the young will be stronger.”
Feeding red squirrels regularly could also play a more unexpected role in their conservation.
“One of the things about having feeders is that it attracts squirrels to the site so it is a good way of seeing if there are greys in the area,” said Mr Stinson.
It is well recognised that the single biggest threat to red squirrels is the grey squirrel. And given that only Barnesmore Gap separates the closest grey squirrel population from south Donegal, the danger is very real.
Mr Stinson explained that even one grey carrying squirrel pox could decimate the red squirrel population of south Donegal in just two weeks.
“It is vitally important that you don’t have red and grey squirrels at feeders at the same time,” he said.
Grey squirrels can carry the pox without being affected but it is deadly to reds.
Another way in which the grey squirrel impacts on reds is that they have a stronger digestive system and so they eat acorns before they are ripe. By the time the acorns would be ripe enough for red squirrels to digest, the oak trees have already been stripped.
Grey squirrels have a much more destructive impact when they take hold. They can destroy woodland, gardens and bird populations. They also have a bigger population density and can travel up to 20kms to set up a new territory.
Anyone who sees a grey squirrel is encouraged to contact the Red Squirrels of Donegal group.
“There is always potential for grey squirrels to colonise here,” said Mr Stinson. “Any greys seen here would have to be removed very quickly.
People are encouraged to report sightings in any area of greys, reds and also of pine martens to www.biodiversity.ie. This information is contributing to a national survey.
The pine marten is a native, tree-dwelling mammal from the same family as the otter, though much smaller. Because its fur was much sought after, the pine marten was very rare until relatively recently. However it is making a comeback and with its reappearance has come an unforeseen decline in grey squirrel populations.
This is good news for the red squirrels but it is not to be taken for granted.
Mr Stinson said that it is thought that one reason the grey squirrels are more likely to be preyed on than reds is that they have no ingrained awareness of the threat posed by the pine marten. This could change in only a few generations. But for the time being, it seems the fate of squirrels is very much linked to that of pine martens. And reds are finally getting the better deal.
Anyone who would like more information on red squirrels in the south Donegal area can get in touch via the Red Squirrels of Donegal Facebook page.
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