Fears for native red squirrels after grey species invades NI beauty spot

An invasion of grey squirrels at a beauty spot outside Eglinton is threatening the native red species.

The North West Red Squirrel Group (NWRSG) said the problem was affecting Muff Glen, 2km south of the village.

The group appealed for people to inform it of any sightings of the pests via its Facebook page (@NorthWestRedSquirrelGroup).

It suggested the expansion of the City Cemetery and subsequent removal of trees, which act as a corridor for red squirrels, may be a reason for their disappearance.

Describing the greys as “rats with furry tails”, NWRSG vice-chair Pam Hardeman said: “They’re twice the size and bully the reds off feeding stations and tables.

“We didn’t have any, then within six months they were everywhere. They swamp the areas.

“They move from woodland to woodland looking for food, coming into people’s gardens and totally destroying birdfeeders, stripping bark off trees — and that tree’s dead then. They are very destructive animals.

“[Workers] are expanding the City Cemetery and removing trees. The corridor to the feeder is gone now.

“When they’re managing forests, they need to make sure there are no red squirrels about.”

The grey squirrel was introduced to Co Longford in 1911. Twelve of them were sent from England as a wedding present.

The species had spread across the border by the 1960s, reducing the native red population from 3.5m to 120,000. Greys will usually replace reds in an area within 15 years by outcompeting them for food and space.

They also pass on the squirrel pox virus, which kills the reds but is harmless to the greys.

Pam explained: “Places like Prehen Wood had reds 10 years ago and then the greys moved in.

“There are at least 250,000 in Ireland now, they outnumber reds at least 20 to one.

“In Muff Glen, monitoring equipment and three feeding areas have been up since 2013. If there are greys in the area and they’re seen as a threat, we set humane traps.

“The main problem is the squirrel pox virus, if they’re both feeding in the same area.

“They also carry other diseases and, if bitten by them, they can cause nasty reactions.

“Red squirrels are such beautiful creatures. When they contract the pox, they’re dead within two weeks.

“It’s horrible — they go blind and get poxes on their heads. We haven’t had that problem in Muff Glen, but there’s nothing to say that it can’t happen.”

Last year a conservation project by The Ballygally Biodiversity Group, Belfast Zoo and Ulster Wildlife successfully reintroduced red squirrels to Carnfunnock Country Park, Co Antrim.

Red squirrels bred for the first time in more than 30 years after feeding boxes were sectioned off and monitored.

But reintroducing the indigenous Irish squirrel is no easy task.

Pam added: “Belfast Zoo will reintroduce reds into certain woodland, but it has to be the right sort of woodland.

“It has to have a ring fence, there can’t be greys for at least two years, and there has to be people on the ground to get rid of them.

“We encourage anyone around Muff Glen, if they see a grey squirrel, to contact us and we can remove them.

“A pine marten has been shown to help the red squirrel population, because greys don’t recognise it as a predator.

“But you can’t just introduce one. It might not be the right habitat.”

Ulster Wildlife’s Ross McIlwrath said: “Red squirrels have slowly recovered across Northern Ireland in recent years thanks to the fantastic efforts of volunteer groups like the NWRSG.

“However, they are still under constant pressure from the introduced invasive grey squirrel.”