Vital volunteers needed to save our last red squirrels

Red squirrel. Picture: Christine Cassidy.jpg
Red squirrel. Picture: Christine Cassidy.jpg

Are you nuts about red squirrels? Ulster Wildlife is leading a recruitment drive for volunteers across Northern Ireland to save our last red squirrels.

With the first of this year’s surveys of the endangered mammal due to start on 2 March, a new approach to the conservation of this charismatic species puts volunteers and members of local Red Squirrel Groups at the forefront of efforts to halt their decline, thanks to the help of Heritage Lottery Funding.

Grey squirrel spread 1968-2011

Grey squirrel spread 1968-2011

Volunteers are needed to help protect red squirrels, as part of community-based teams gathering information about squirrel populations. Tasks include speedy reporting of grey squirrels moving into areas which are currently strongholds for red squirrels. The larger, invasive non-native greys are a major reason for the reds decline.

Volunteers will work across 120 key woodlands, logging squirrel and pine marten sightings, monitoring feeders for reds and greys, setting up camera traps to film their behavior, and informing the public about our treasured nutkin.

Workshops are being held in Belfast, Enniskillen, Derry/Londonderry, Larne and Kilkeel throughout March, for anyone interested in taking part in the surveys – see www.ulsterwildlife.org for further details.

Data gathered about sightings will contribute to the work of Red Squirrels United, a UK-wide network set up to protect the reds, led by The Wildlife Trusts in nine stronghold areas in Northern Ireland, England and Wales. The initiative is supported by Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF across the UK) and LIFE (in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and by NIEA in Northern Ireland. LIFE is the EU’s financial instrument supporting environmental, nature conservation and climate action projects throughout the EU.

Red squirrels are one of our most-loved species, but sadly they have declined dramatically since the grey squirrel was introduced to Ireland in 1911. To ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy these special animals, we need volunteers to help us monitor squirrels in their local area, so we can target our conservation efforts.

Conor McKinney, Ulster Wildlife

Conor McKinney from Ulster Wildlife, who is leading the Red Squirrels United Project in Northern Ireland, said: “Red squirrels are one of our most-loved species, but sadly they have declined dramatically since the grey squirrel was introduced to Ireland in 1911.

“To ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy these special animals, we need volunteers to help us monitor squirrels in their local area, so we can target our conservation efforts.

“We would also encourage the public to report squirrel sightings to help with wider conservation efforts. Together, we can give our reds a fighting chance of survival.”

Red Squirrel United programme manager Dr Cathleen Thomas, from The Wildlife Trusts, said: “In most of the UK there are only a handful of refuges left for red squirrels; without help, experts predict this beautiful and treasured creature could be extinct within as little as 35 years.

“Problems arise because grey squirrels are competing with reds for food and places to live, pushing them into areas where they find it more difficult to survive. Greys can also transmit a deadly disease to reds. Volunteers play a crucial role enabling red squirrels to thrive and across the UK, we aim to increase volunteer numbers from 500 to 5000, thanks to help from the National Lottery players.”

Red Squirrels United came together in 2015. It marks the biggest ever partnership of academics and conservationists working together on a scientifically robust programme of conservation for this iconic native species.

In Northern Ireland, Ulster Wildlife will work with landowners, local communities and local Red Squirrel Groups in four remaining stronghold areas for reds including the Mournes, Broughshane and Ballygally, Fermanagh and the North West to help prevent further spread of invasive grey squirrels through conservation and community engagement activities.

On the 7 and 8 March 2017, Red Squirrels United will hold a Red Squirrel Knowledge Fair in Belfast – it will be the first ever time that people from across the UK have shared experiences and techniques to help stop the decline of this charismatic species.

Red squirrel. Picture:Chrristine Cassidy

Red squirrel. Picture:Chrristine Cassidy

To get involved with the surveys or to report a squirrel sighting, visit www.ulsterwildlife.org/redsquirrels or email redsquirrels@ulsterwildlife.org.

You can also volunteer with your local Red Squirrel Group and help red squirrels thrive in your area – see the website for further details.