Ranger Tales: Toby Edward's red squirrel crusade

National Trust ranger Toby Edwards discusses our red squirrel conservation project

Meet Toby, one of our rangers helping to protect the population of red squirrels in Northern Ireland.

Here Toby tells us about his work, what he loves about being a National Trust ranger and how to spot these increasingly elusive creatures.

Q: Where can you find red squirrels in Northern Ireland?

A: The red squirrel population in Northern Ireland is increasingly elusive and under pressure from invasive species and habitat loss, but our rangers are working on a landscape approach to support red squirrel conservation. We are lucky to have a number of strongholds in our care from the glens and woodlands backing onto Cushendun, North Coast to the Fermanagh Lakelands of Crom, some isolated areas of the Mournes and, of course, Mount Stewart on the Ards Peninsula.

A red squirrel in woodland
Red squirrel standing on a woodland floor
A red squirrel in woodland

Q: Why aren’t there more red squirrels in Northern Ireland?

It boils down to the introduction of the grey squirrel to Ireland in 1911 initially in Co. Longford – since then they have rapidly spread and out-competed our native red. Not only do they breed more often, have larger litters and a broader diet, they also carry the squirrel-pox virus and adenovirus which is fatal to red squirrels. All of the above, coupled with habitat loss, has pushed the reds into marginalised and fragmented populations. We are now at the tipping point and could likely see the extinction of the red squirrel from the island of Ireland without the action of groups like ourselves.

Q: Do grey squirrels deserve the bad rap they get?

This is all about context – in their native environment like any species there are natural balances and controls and in the majority they are not an issue. However, here they are a non-native invasive species with no natural predation or controls causing extensive damage to tree and plants and even houses as they chew into roofs. Couple this with the direct impact they have on the native red squirrel and they find themselves in an unfavorable place! As a result they are on the Invasive Alien Species register and are among the ‘most wanted’ list of invasive species on the island of Ireland.

We have a healthy population of red squirrels throughout the estate
A red squirrel sitting on a log in the forest at Mount Stewart
We have a healthy population of red squirrels throughout the estate

Q: Is there anything we can do as the general community to help protect these animals

Yes! So much, including from your own home…

  • A great start is if you have grey squirrels visiting your bird feeders is to not feed them! and try to use ‘squirrel proof’ feeders.
  • Report sightings of Grey and Red squirrels to me if in the Ards area or to CEDaR -  for wider Northern Ireland.  This data helps the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum understand population distribution, so we can plan our limited resources for control and conservation efforts around the country through the red squirrel groups.
  • Get involved on the ground – Join your local red squirrel group in Northern Ireland or collectively through the partnership Red Squirrels United programme headed up by Ulster Wildlife.

Q. So, does the future look bright (or grey) for red squirrels here?

Thankfully there are good news stories right across the UK and Ireland where red squirrel conservation is taking place. At Mount Stewart, following the initial clearance of the rapidly establishing grey squirrel population in 2015, the red squirrels bounced back with vigour in 2016/17 with an extremely successful breeding year and a high first year survival rate of their young.  Those young reds have now moved back into the woodlands that are kept clear of the greys. This has all been supported with sound red squirrel conservation and habitat management to give them the best chance to naturally respond and recolonise the area. In fact it has been so good that reds are now spilling out into neighbouring lands.  We have great potential through working with surrounding land owners to maintain ‘corridors’ for the reds to move through, reconnecting the isolated populations and improving genetic diversity.

Q: When is the best time to spot a red squirrel?

Autumn/winter is the best time to spot these colourful characters whether in leafless trees or on the ground where they spend more time foraging food stocks for the winter ahead. Keep an eye out at Mount Stewart for the red squirrels grabbing a snack at our monitoring stations when out walking the Demesne trails.

Q: Where can I find out more information about red squirrels?

Local group contacts, publications and guidance for Red Squirrels in Northern Ireland can be found at the following links -

https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/topics/bio-diversity/northern-ireland-squirrel-forum

https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/articles/controlling-grey-squirrel-population

Red Squirrels United is the biggest ever partnership of academics, practitioners and volunteers working together on a scientifically robust programme of red squirrel conservation. Their work focuses on nine main stronghold areas of red squirrel populations across Northern Ireland, England and Wales.

Keep up to date with Mount Stewart’s red squirrels and the Ranger team with @NTRangerToby 

Join Toby for guided walk/talks on Red Squirrel Day at Mount Stewart, 30th Sept.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a ranger at Mount Stewart?

It has to be the sheer range of what we do. No day is the same and seeing the short and long term benefits of our work and improving conservation and enabling access for the public. Seeing people explore, connect and enjoy their surrounding environments is fantastic.

Q: Favourite thing to see at Mount Stewart?

For me, right now it’s all about the potential that Mount Stewart has now we have taken ownership and care of the demesne. There is a wealth of hidden and forgotten features and habitats that through our work will be amazing to explore over the coming years. Visitors can already access some of this and so much more to come year on year. I hope that returning visitors will also see the annual improvements to overall biodiversity here. (and of course, our Red Squirrels!) Join me on one of my ‘behind the scenes’ walks to get exclusive tasters of what is to come!

Video

Looking after nature in Northern Ireland

With your support we are looking after land in ways that give nature space to regenerate, allowing wildlife to return. Here’s a little of what we are doing…