Double delight for zoo’s red squirrel conservation project

Belfast Zoo celebrated another conservation success when two male red squirrels, born at the Cave Hill site, were released in the Ballykinler Estate.
Belfast Zoo celebrated another conservation success when two male red squirrels, born at the Cave Hill site, were released in the Ballykinler Estate.

Belfast Zoo celebrated another conservation success on September 17 when two male red squirrels, born at the Bellevue site, were released at the Ballykinler Estate in County Down.

The successful release of this pair will soon be followed by the further release of four more red squirrels.

Belfast Zoo has been playing a vital role in the conservation of the red squirrel, one of Northern Ireland’s most iconic species, in recent years.

The zoo first became home to red squirrels in 2012 when three animals arrived from the Glens of Antrim. The aim of red squirrel nook was predominantly education and interaction. However, from the beginning, the hope was that the squirrels would be sufficiently content in the nook to breed. Since then zoo staff have welcomed 11 kittens (baby squirrels).

In anticipation of breeding success, release arrangements were drawn up by Belfast Zoo, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum (NISF). In 2014, the first Belfast Zoo-born red squirrel kittens were released to Glenarm Estate with great success and the recent release at the Ballykinler Estate is the second stage of the project.

Following health checks the three male squirrels left the zoo, accompanied by the zoo vet and curator, Alyn Cairns. On arrival at Ballykinler Estate the pair entered a purpose-built ‘soft release’ enclosure in the middle of a strip of approximately 200 metres by 60 metres of mature pine woodland.

Ballykinler Estate Manager, Tony Canniford, stated: “Ballykinler Estate is a 30 acre site made up of three or four areas of woodland. It is prime habitat for red squirrels and we have worked in close consultation with both the zoo and the NIEA to ensure that the site was prepared for the arrival of the squirrels, for example we have installed feeding tables, water sources, nest boxes and cameras for remote monitoring. Most importantly the site is completely free of grey squirrels! There is currently considerable work being undertaken at the Ballykinler Estate, with an ardent focus on native species. It was a natural fit for the estate to become involved with Belfast Zoo’s red squirrel project.”

Mr Canniford continued: “The long term intention is that the estate will serve as a protected and managed extension of the zoo programme so that once released and acclimatised, zoo born animals will settle in Ballykinler before potentially moving to new locations for permanent settlement and establishment of future breeding populations, in consultation with the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum. This is the first stage in hopefully a very long and fruitful partnership.”

Zoo curator and chairperson of the Belfast Zoo native species group, Alyn Cairns, explains: “Belfast Zoo cares for some of the world’s most endangered species that are facing increasing threats in their natural habitats and it’s vital that we play a leading role in protecting Northern Ireland’s very own wildlife on our own doorstep. The success of the latest release is the culmination of more than ten years of planning and work and to see the squirrels begin to populate new areas is extremely encouraging for everyone who has worked so tirelessly to reach this point. We could not have done it without everyone who has been central to the success, including the NIEA, the zoo vet, the NISF and the ministry of defence.”

Chairperson of the NISF, Declan Looney, is delighted with the latest success of the project.

“So many people have been involved with the Belfast Zoo project, since its inception and these collaborative efforts have resulted in the success which it has now become. However, this is not simply a success for those working directly on the project but is a success for everyone in Northern Ireland. The breeding project aims to preserve an iconic local animal, which is facing increased threat in our very own country. The breeding and release work which has been carried out over the last few years has initiated a safety net population of red squirrels and we now have the ability to continue to support existing populations or work with new areas of habitat. We are also delighted to hear that Belfast Zoo have had a further four kittens in recent months and they too will play an important role in the future of the species,” he said.

For more information about Belfast Zoo’s work with red squirrels and other native species, visit www.belfastzoo.co.uk/nativespecies or email nativespecies@belfastzoo.co.uk