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Room for red squirrel in Wild Nephin?

Outdoor Living

PINING FOR A HOME Gnawed-upon spruce cones at Moorehall, evidence of the presence of at least one solitary red squirrel.  Pic: John Shelley

Country Sights ans Sounds
John Shelley

Being keen to show off our local wildlife to visiting friends, I walked the woods at Moorehall to find where the local red squirrels have been hanging out lately. These shy animals are rarely seen. They see us alright, from their vantage point high in the trees, and know enough of human nature to make sure they stay out of sight as much as possible. Patience is needed, along with a little guile, if we really want to meet them.
Aileen, who lives halfway up a forested mountain in Perthshire, is familiar with her own Scottish squirrels. She told me how the Caledonian Forest Project has been working since 2015 to reintroduce red squirrels into parts of Scotland that had lost their squirrel populations for a variety of reasons.
“Why,” I wanted to know, “had they died out in the first place?” After all, if local conditions didn’t suit them, surely spending time and money on trying to bring them back would be futile.
The fragmentation of woodland has been a contributory factor, she explains. “These animals prefer to travel from tree to tree and only come down to the ground if they need to, perhaps to gather fallen fruit and nuts, sometimes to help themselves to a mushroom dinner, and as winter approaches, to bury hazelnuts or other food items with the intention of recovering these during the difficult times that lie ahead, when there’s little fresh food to be found.
“When an area of woodland is either harvested or cleared for any other reason, the squirrels that were living there often find themselves displaced. A breeding pair of red squirrels need an undisturbed area of several hectares filled with mature, seed-bearing trees, and any offspring they produce will need their own several hectares in which to forge a living.’
It is easy to see how the spread of squirrels in Ireland could easily be stymied, with little real traditional forest cover to support them.
Two years ago there were several squirrels at Moorehall. They had probably migrated across the water from the grounds of Partry House, where they have thrived in relative peace for years.
Squirrels are good swimmers and there is no reason to doubt they might undertake such a trip from the wooded islands there across to the equally well-wooded and undoubtedly inviting Otter Point. From there they have only a short scramble through the tree tops to get to Moorehall. Sadly, this must limit their colonial spirit, for there are no trees of any account apart from back the way they came.
So I searched, hoping our local squirrels had settled in and reproduced through the summer. There is little point in looking for the animals themselves. Sharp-eyed and shy, they either sit as still as a stone while we pass by or remain several trees ahead of us as we crash through the undergrowth.
No, we must look for evidence that they live locally, and in mature spruce forest, such evidence comes in the form of frittered spruce cones lying at the base of favoured trees.
Even last winter there was plenty of evidence to show we had a reasonable squirrel population. This morning I had to search for an hour before I found a pair of cones displaying classic squirrel feeding characteristics. But find them I did. So we have at least one solitary squirrel.
I pointed this out to Aileen, who looked at me with pity. There are many thousands of squirrels distributed through various Scottish woodlands, and these can be seen and watched with very little effort. The work done in reintroducing them to areas where they had disappeared has been successful.
She referred me to the translocation of 43 red squirrels to an area of extensive woodland in the Wester Ross region. In less than ten years, that population has expanded and become several hundred.
Are there any areas of Mayo that could support such a population? There is one – the Nephin Wilderness Area, the title of which has recently been transferred from Coillte to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. What would it take? There would be no point introducing animals if there’s no chance of them surviving. A bit of homework needs to be done, and perhaps some habitat improvement.
A management plan for the area is just being finalised. Aileen asked if it has room for the red squirrel. I think perhaps it does.