Red Squirrels

Squirrel History in Ireland Introduction of Grey Squirrel Squirrel Food
What can be done ? Legislation

Red Squirrels at Emo Court

One of the most common sightings of wildlife at Emo Court is that of a red squirrel. The old broad leaved trees provide very good food and shelter, and so far the invasive grey squirrel has not made an appearance.

The red squirrel (Sciurus Vulgaris) belongs to a large group of mammals called rodents (Rodentia), which includes rats and mice. They can vary hugely in all shades of red and brown to almost black, and their bushy tail at 20cm is nearly as long as their body. This tail helps them to balance as they climb and jump through trees.
A red squirrel is only half the size of a grey squirrel, and the long ear tufts are found only in red squirrels.
Their home (called a drey) is like a large bird’s nest lined with moss and twigs. Baby squirrels (kits) are born between February and August. There may be two litters in a year, with up to six kits in a litter. Few squirrels live beyond six years, due to starvation, disease, predation, or human interference with their habitat.
They do not hibernate, but rely in winter on buried nuts and small seeds.

History in Ireland
Red squirrels are one of the oldest native Irish species, in that they pre-date human history and were common at the end of the ice age when forests covered most of the landscape. As farmers arrived and cleared away the forests for farming and for timber, red squirrels in Ireland became almost extinct and had to be re-introduced from England about 200 years ago. They did very well and became common again in woodlands. However, in recent years, competition from the grey squirrel has pushed them once more down the road towards extinction.
There are 250,000-300,000 grey squirrels in Ireland, but only 50,000-100,000 red squirrels: the red squirrel is disappearing by 1% every year.

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Introduction of the grey squirrel
Six pairs of American grey squirrels were introduced to Ireland at Castle Forbes in Co Longford in 1911. They spread widely along the east coast and in the midlands, and are found from Waterford to Derry. They have not moved extensively into the west of Ireland: the Shannon is something of a natural barrier, but the lack of mature hedgerows and suitable food and shelter also deters them.
Frequently when the grey squirrel moves into an area, the red squirrel disappears. It is possible that the grey squirrel has not yet arrived in Emo Court because road-building in the area may have blocked the hedgerow corridors along which it travels, and so the red squirrel remains.

Habitat of the squirrel
Red squirrels will live in both coniferous and broadleaf woods. The grey squirrel often cannot survive in purely coniferous woods. Red squirrels will disappear from broadleaf woods if greys move in.
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Red squirrels enjoy a fairly specialised diet: tree seeds, fruit, buds, nuts, flowers, pine cones, fungi. In coniferous woods, they eat pine cones from Scots pine, larch and Norway spruce. Nibbled pine cones on the ground are a sure sign that squirrels are in the area.
The grey squirrel is more opportunistic and will eat a very varied diet (but is not so fond of coniferous pine cones) and also tree bark. A grey squirrel can digest acorns earlier in the season than the red squirrel, thus reducing an important source of food for the red squirrel. If a food shortage exists through autumn and winter, red squirrels will have a lower breeding rate.

Impact of the grey squirrel
The grey squirrel can do enormous damage to trees by stripping the tree of its bark. They are especially fond of broad-leaved trees such as sycamore and beech.
The grey squirrel will displace the red squirrel due to its larger size and larger fat reserves which carry it more successfully through the winter.
The grey squirrel in Ireland also carries a virus (Squirrel Pox Virus) which is potentially fatal for red squirrels but appears not to affect the grey squirrel.
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What can be done?
Red squirrels need to be promoted in woodlands that are suitable to them eg in coniferous woods. Supplementary feeding may be necessary for them to build up enough reserves to last over the winter so that breeding will take place in spring. Old trees suit them better so long-term retention of woodlands should be encouraged. Grey squirrels are here to stay and cannot be permanently removed at national level. Control of them has to be targeted and specific: immuno-contraception may provide one route for this control.
Translocation (the moving of a small group of red squirrels to another location suitable as their habitat) is in the experimental stages in Ireland. Squirrels have been moved from Portumna Forest Park to west Galway and are doing well so far. It is likely that this translocation will be repeated in Sligo.
It is hoped that squirrel conservation officers with such bodies as the National Parks and Wildlife Services will implement strategies to promote red squirrels
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The red squirrel is a protected species in Ireland under the Wildlife Acts of 1976 and 2000, but is not protected by EU legislation. There are very few grey squirrels in Europe – they have only just arrived in Italy – and so no legislation as yet has been enacted for their control.

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