Much-loved Red Squirrel numbers on the rise in Mount Stewart

Much-loved Red Squirrel numbers on the rise in Mount Stewart

9 January 2019

THE Red Squirrel is enjoying a baby boom around the grounds of a Strangford Lough stately home.

The fiery coloured fur ball hasn’t had it easy over the past 100 years after being almost wiped out by its cousin, the invasive Grey Squirrel. 

Since environmentalists began a drive in 2015 to save the dwindling population on the Ards Peninsula and around Mount Stewart, their luck appears to be changing. Recent reports from volunteers suggest the red is enjoying a comeback, making it the first successful stand-off of its kind in Ireland.

The project was spearheaded by National Trust ranger Toby Edwards, who has worked with volunteer groups and private landlords across the wider peninsula to try to save the cute little rodent. 

The geographic isolation of the peninsula meant it was one of the few remaining pockets on the island of Ireland where the red still enjoyed natural protection. However, the disease-carrying greys, which inadvertently made it to the area as an ill-thought-out wedding present, displaced the reds as they moved through the Peninsula.

Mr Edwards said: “There are many stories from the family that lived here at Mount Stewart of having red squirrels coming up to their bedroom windows — you would have been almost tripping over them on the estate. But that rapidly started to decline from 2010 onwards.

“In 2015, the population was measured as low as 10 red squirrels across the entire stretch of Mount Steward’s 600-acre woodland. That was the last stand.”

An intensive National Trust-funded programme to save the red squirrel, which involved a major cull of greys and the creation of a buffer zone, has triggered a recovery. 

The buffer zone, which stretches right across the top of the peninsula, from Newtownards to Millisle, has had monitoring technology installed, ensuring that any returning grey is quickly identified. 

Together with this equipment, which includes little fur-capturing sticky pads placed on feeding stations, Mr Edwards and his team provide supplementary food supplies throughout the winter months.

Their efforts have seen a dramatic spike in the numbers of reds, with latest reports suggesting the species has quadrupled in four years. 

He said visitors to the estate are now being wowed by the number of reds. A special viewing hide has been built to give people the best chance of seeing them. 

“With numbers restored visitors are seeing them regularly. A lot of people have never seen a red squirrel before. It has almost become a mythical animal to them, like something out of a Beatrix Potter or an Enid Blyton book. 

“People are so used to seeing the urban grey squirrel everywhere that the hide is great for people to experience the red squirrel.”

Highlighting the risk posed by greys, Mr Edwards continued: “All it could take is just one grey carrying the small pox virus and it could wipe out the population we have left. 

“While some people are uneasy about the killing of greys, there is a general acceptance that clearances are necessary if the reds are to be saved. 

“The most negative comment I’ve received in the last four years was, ‘I don’t like it but I understand why’. 

“The overwhelming visitor feedback and experience at Mount Stewart has been fantastic and has been really rewarding for us as a team and the volunteers putting in hours and hours of effort to protect the red squirrel here and rebuild it.” 

Meanwhile, a Tollymore Forest Park volunteer who was behind the Tollymore Red Squirrel Group has received recognition for similar work.

Anne McComb received the BEM in the New Year Honours for her work.

Mrs McComb said that she hoped her award would inspire other young boys and girls believe they too can make this world a better place. 

She said: “I must be the luckiest person in the world to live at the edge of Tollymore Forest Park and its been wonderful to work with and teach local school children who really are the conservationists of tomorrow.”

Mrs McComb was full of praise for other fellow conservationists who were working hard to provide the right kind of conditions for the red squirrel to flourish again.