Kilkenny Advertiser – Deirdre Russel
A new report suggests that the country’s native red squirrel could be wiped out if the rapid spread of the grey squirrel is not controlled.
The 2007 Irish Squirrel Survey launched this week also attributes a virus carried by the grey squirrel as one of the possible causes of the decline of the red squirrel. The problem has already affected Carlow and Kilkenny’s red squirrel population.
“The problem started in 1911 when a handful of grey squirrels were released in Ireland at Castle Forbes, County Longford. Since then they have colonised much of Ireland in less than 100 years,” said Lorcan Scott District Conservation Officer for the Parks and Wildlife Service in the south-east.
“There are an estimated nine hundred thousand grey squirrels in existence and this rapid growth is making it very difficult for our native squirrel to survive,” he stated.
He explained that essentially the grey squirrel is causing the decline of the red by out-competing it for food resources. “The grey squirrels come from North America and can adapt very well to life in deciduous woodland,” added Mr Scott.
Over the past decade the grey squirrel has spread to 26 counties throughout Ireland. It is now found west of the Shannon, in Leitrim and Roscommon, where it had not previously been found.
Although the red squirrel is extinct in Meath, Westmeath and Kilkenny, the conservation officer says that red squirrels were known to inhabit Huntington Castle Grounds in Carlow up to five years ago.
“On top of this the grey squirrels strip bark from trees so they can feed on the soft inner layers which can cause considerable damage to trees, whereas red squirrels prefer to feed on pinecones, mushrooms and even beetles.”
Mr Scott added; ” the red squirrel is more adaptable to coniferous vegetation such as that found in Glendalough, whereas broadleaf woodlands are the favoured habitat for grey squirrels.”
So what is being done to combat the decline of our native squirrel?
“National parks and wildlife services in Ireland and the UK are involved in trial services,” he explained. “A trial population of red squirrels have been moved to coniferous woodlands in Connemara in the hope that the grey squirrel won’t be inclined to inhabit there aswell,” he added.
“We really don’t know if the red squirrels will go extinct. If we could find an antidote for the virus and control the spread of the grey squirrel it would make a difference,” he concluded.
The red squirrel has been extinct twice before, with the current population having being re-introduced from Britain in the 19th century.