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Belfast Zoo celebrates and reflects on a significant milestone of 30 red squirrels released into the wild, with Zoo Curator, Raymond Robinson

Date: 24 Nov 2020

Raymond saw an opportunity to contribute to the preservation of red squirrels back in 2004 when members of the zoo team formed a “Native Species” group.

Raymond saw an opportunity to contribute to the preservation of red squirrels back in 2004 when members of the zoo team formed a “Native Species” group.

While the zoo’s primary focus is on the conservation of exotic, rare animals, this group recognised the need to highlight Northern Ireland’s native wildlife and habitats.

Raymond explained, “The native species group at Belfast Zoo was established to allow all staff to contribute to local conservation issues and to play a part through captive breeding, education, engagement with other stakeholders as well having a say about local species.  I always believe conservation begins on your own doorstep, and whilst it’s brilliant at the zoo to contribute to world-wide conservation of many well-known and endangered species, we also have a huge part to play caring for and getting our message out about the threats facing local wildlife.  Although the red squirrels have been a flagbearer for the native species group, we have also carried out projects with hedgehogs, Irish black honey bees, bats, birds and the planting of wildflower areas around the zoo site.”

In 2010, the group then began to fundraise for native species projects and the money generated was used to build state-of-the-art red squirrel enclosures and to develop the red squirrel nook (based on advice from expert, Craig Shuttleworth. from the Anglesey red squirrel project).

Throughout the development of red squirrel nook, the zoo also worked closely with the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum (NISF, which is chaired by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA)). This forum was established to bring together those dedicated to protecting the red squirrel in Northern Ireland. Members of the forum include Belfast Zoo, conservation organisations, local red squirrel action groups, local authorities and councils.

“We work alongside both government agencies such NIEA, as well as non-government agencies, private groups, volunteers and charities such as The National Trust, the various local Red Squirrel groups, as well as private companies and those within the education sector.  To be part of such a passionate conservation focused forum is a huge honour for Belfast Zoo. Helping to save animals from extinction is a multi-faceted role involving numerous individuals and organisations and we all play an important role within this.”

Belfast Zoo’s first red squirrels, Taisie, Shesk and Oisin arrived at Belfast Zoo from the Glens of Antrim in 2012 and although the animals were still young, complex breeding agreements had already been drawn up with the help of the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. It was hoped that their offspring would be used to supplement the current and safe red squirrel populations or they could be used to populate new areas.

In 2014 this hope was realised when four red squirrels, born at Belfast Zoo, were released into the wild at Glenarm estate and five to Ballykinler the following year.

In 2018 six reds were released in Silent Valley and two at Montalto Estate. In 2019 a red was released again at Ballykinler and at Montalto but in addition to this, four reds were also released at Carnfunnock Country Park.

With no sign of the breeding programme slowing down, 2019 also saw the zoo receive a silver award from professional body BIAZA (British & Irish Association of Zoos & Aquariums) for their dedication to red squirrel conservation.

“The recognition by BIAZA for our red squirrel conservation programme was excellent news,” says Raymond.  “It was a terrific recognition for all our hard work, and coming from our peers and competing against many other worthy projects in Britain and Ireland.”

In 2020 a sixth release site was introduced to the breeding programme where three reds were released at Dunnywater and a further four at Carnfunnock Country Park, bringing the overall release total to 30.

Reflecting on the work of the project to date, Raymond said “To have released 30 red squirrels to date is a massive achievement for Belfast Zoo as it’s a milestone that has been reached by a lot of hard work by zoo and other Belfast City Council staff.  A lot of effort, discussion and working with other interested bodies all helped us to reach this figure.  To have reached such a fantastic number of released squirrels is all the more satisfying as not only does it reinforce our belief and commitment to protecting this iconic local and much-loved species, but also highlights to our visitors to ‘Act local, think global’ when we are trying to protect the environment and its many inhabitants around us. We will continue to build on the success of the breeding programme and release more red squirrels in conjunction with NIEA, around protected sites in Northern Ireland.”

Belfast Zoo has the only red squirrel breeding programme in Northern Ireland and Raymond has been instrumental in implementing release programmes into suitable and grey squirrel-free land, which will hopefully boast thriving colonies and help secure the future of the reds for generations to come.