The location was carefully chosen for its ample woodland habitat and most importantly, as it is free from invasive grey squirrels – the biggest threat to the survival of our red squirrels’.
The introduction is part of an ongoing effort between Belfast Zoo, the National Trust, Ulster Wildlife, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and the Heart of Down Red Squirrel Group to secure the long-term future of this increasingly rare mammal.
Belfast Zoo Manager, Alyn Cairns, explains, “Red squirrels, though common across much of Europe, are now restricted to particular localities across Northern Ireland due to habitat loss and competition from the invasive grey squirrel.
Since 2012 we have been breeding reds and releasing them into carefully selected areas that are deemed suitable by the NI Squirrel Forum. The addition of Castle Ward marks our seventh release site and our 35th zoo-bred squirrel to go out into the wild. 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.”
Red squirrels have declined in numbers dramatically due to the invasive grey squirrel, an invasive species that was introduced in the late 19th century from North America. As well as out-competing reds for food and habitats, greys also carry squirrel pox, to which they have evolved immunity, but which is often lethal to reds.
Belfast Zoo is part of the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum which is chaired by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). This forum was established to bring together those dedicated to protecting the red squirrel in Northern Ireland.