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Red squirrel release at Castle Ward sparks fresh hope for iconic mammal

Red squirrel in the snow at Mount Stewart in County Down, Northern Ireland.
The native red squirrel is set to thrive again at Castle Ward in County Down | © National Trust/ AA Kennedy

Red squirrels have been successfully introduced into Castle Ward estate, outside Strangford, in a bid to establish a new population of this iconic native species. The first four red squirrels were released into their new woodland home this winter, from Belfast Zoo, with more to follow from thriving local sites over the coming months. The introduction is part of an ongoing effort between the National Trust, Ulster Wildlife, Belfast Zoo, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and the Heart of Down Red Squirrel Group to secure the long-term future of this increasingly rare mammal.

Castle Ward in County Down was carefully chosen as it has ample woodland habitat and most importantly, it is free from invasive grey squirrels – the biggest threat to the survival of the red squirrel.

Cormac Dolan, Area Ranger at National Trust Castle Ward, explains: “Our healthy population of pine marten at Castle Ward, alongside the work of local volunteers, has allowed for the absence of the invasive grey squirrel. Greys are known to carry a fatal disease for our native reds and they also out-compete them for food and territory. The pine marten and red squirrel have evolved together in our local ecosystems and can much more easily share habitat. The work by everyone involved in this project is inspiring and shows how with the right conditions and a little help our native species can be given the chance to make a comeback.”

Red squirrels faced huge declines in the UK and Ireland due to the invasive grey, introduced from North America in the 19th century, and habitat loss. However, alongside the spread of native pine martens and local conservation work, they are starting to recover locally. Since 2012, Belfast Zoo has been breeding red squirrels and working with conservationists to release them into suitable woodlands, where these wild animals belong and can thrive.

“The addition of Castle Ward marks our seventh release site and our 35th zoo-bred squirrel to go out into the wild,” says Belfast Zoo Manager, Alyn Cairns. “We are hopeful that this National Trust site will prove to be a safe haven for reds and for future generations to enjoy in the coming years.”

The squirrels were carefully transported by Belfast Zoo and Ulster Wildlife in hay-lined nest boxes to a soft-release pen in the estate to allow them to acclimatise to their new surroundings, before taking their first leap into the wild.

Katy Bell, Senior Conservation Officer at Ulster Wildlife, who has been at the forefront of this initiative, said: “This much-needed project to introduce red squirrels to Castle Ward has been in planning with partners for a number of years and we are delighted to see it finally come to fruition with the red squirrels now settled into their new home. Partnership working is vital to helping to ensure the long-term future of red squirrels in Northern and we hope to see this new population flourish, breed and spread out into other areas in County Down and beyond, with continued collaboration between organisations, landowners and volunteers. This work links into our ten-year Red Squirrel Conservation Strategy for Northern Ireland to support red squirrel recovery across the country.”

Since the successful release of the red squirrels at the end of last year, estate staff and volunteers regularly top up feeders, to help the squirrels get used to their new habitat, and monitor specialised cameras to ensure that they remain happy and healthy.

Danielle Shortall, National Trust Nature Recovery Project Officer, said: “Our ranger team really enjoy keeping the feeders topped up and keeping an eye out for the wee furry folk in our wooded areas, but we couldn’t do it without the help of a great group of volunteers and the Heart of the Down Red Squirrel Group. Positive community involvement – from monitoring the squirrels and carrying out supplementary feeding to local people reporting sightings – is at the heart of this exciting project and we are grateful for everyone’s support.”