Friday, October 15, 2010

Red Squirrels Have Come Back Before

Red Squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris
The Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is the only native Irish squirrel and is easily recognisable by its orange-red fur and distinctive ear tufts. Its body is 20-28 cm in length and its tail is usually paler than its body (Sterry, 2004 Collins Complete Guide to Irish Wildlife p. 20). Its decline in Ireland in recent years has been well documented in the popular press. The most recent survey of S. vulgaris numbers by Carey et al. in 2007 showed no individuals in counties Meath or Westmeath and only a few records from Louth, Carlow and Kilkenny combined (The Irish Squirrel Survey 2007, COFORD). It is estimated that there are currently 40,000 individuals in the whole of Ireland (2008, National Parks and Wildlife and Environment and Heritage Service of Northern Ireland, All-Ireland Species Action Plan: Red Squirrel).

This decline has been blamed on the spread of the Grey Squirrel (S. carolinensis), a species introduced from America to Castle Forbes in Co. Longford in 1911. S. carolinensis is a larger animal than S. vulgaris (body length 25-30cm) and this, along with their wider dietary range allows them to outcompete the Red Squirrel. Woodland availability and woodland species composition also have an effect on S. vulagris numbers.

Yet S. vulgaris has experienced all of this before. In 16th century Ireland, a large part of the native woodlands were cleared, which possibly lead to the extinction of S. vulgaris. In the 1800s, individuals were translocated from Britain to Ireland, thus reintroducing the species (Barrington, 1880 Scientific Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society 2 pp. 615-631). In 2003, 19 S. vulgaris individuals were successfully translocated to Derryclare, Connemara in western Galway, which prompted a further translocation of individuals to Belleck Forest Park in Co. Mayo (Finnegan, 2007 The Translocation of Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) to Belleek Forest Park, Mayo – Phase One).

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