Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum -The Issues
The red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, is native to Ireland. It is threatened by the grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis, an invasive alien species which was introduced 100 years ago in 1911 to county Longford from England where they had been established from their native North America several years before.
Northern Ireland has a very small percentage of tree cover compared to other European countries, which limits the available habitat for Red Squirrels. Additionally red squirrels are already under pressure from habitat loss across Northern Ireland. When the grey squirrel arrives in a red squirrel area, the red squirrel population usually disappears within 15 years. As the grey squirrel outcompetes the red for food, space and carries a disease, called the Squirrel Pox virus. This disease kills the red squirrel but has no known lasting effect on the greys. In circumstances where the presence of squirrel pox is confirmed, the extinction rate of Reds can be 20 to 25 times faster than that in pox free areas.
The primary issue is the spread of the grey squirrel because the greys can thrive in conditions that would be tough going for red squirrels. Therefore where habitat is lost to development or agriculture the greys can continue to live in parks, gardens and hedgerows. Reds struggle in these lesser habitats and are generally restricted to commerical forestry plantations. Greys can eat seeds and nuts that are not ripe enough for the reds to digest so they get the food first. As the grey squirrel lives at considerably higher densities they also cause considerable damage to nesting birds and trees. In the urban environment grey squirrels raid bird feeders, bins and have been known to damage roofs.
The maps below plot the approximate spread of the grey squirrel across Northern Ireland.
The Greys probably only appeared in Northern Ireland in the mid-sixties as this map above of the spread of greys from 1968 to 1973 shows.
Unfortunately their spread has been relentless, within 40 years they where in all six counties.
The only sustainable way to conserve the Red Squirrel in the UK and Ireland is to remove the grey squirrel from the habitats suitable for red squirrels. Ultimately the ideal way to secure the red squirrels future in the UK and Ireland is the complete eradication of the grey from the land, however this is currently an unachievable target given the available resources and would certainly be very difficult without a ‘magic bullet’ solution. Several scientific solutions are being investigated currently but none of these are ready to be field trialled.
How can I help?
- If you have grey squirrels entering your garden do not feed them!!!
- Make sure your bird feeders are 'squirrel proofed'.
If you are lucky enough to have red squirrels in your garden and they are feeding on bird feeders, you should disinfect these feeders regularly by firstly using a household detergent and clean away any dirt, followed by a soak in a broad spectrum disinfectant or a 5-10% bleach solution for at least 15 minutes and then rinse in cold water. This is good practice even if you don’t have squirrels as diseases can spread between birds and other wildlife at feeding stations. The NISF have produced detailed guidance on trap and feeder hyigene and this available to view and download here (pdf 40Kb)
Encourage your local authority to undertake grey squirrel management within their parks and open spaces. These places offer breeding sites for the greys which then spread out to surrounding areas. The grey squirrel can live in high densities, causing significant damage to trees and plants. This has a negative impact on the local authority's Parks and Gardens Department's budget.
- If you are land owner or farmer control any grey squirrels on your property.
If you have a very large garden or farmland which has tree cover and there are grey squirrels living there you should consider some control measures – please contact the NIEA for further advice, email: Squirrels@doeni.gov.uk
The NISF has produced detailed guidelines on how grey squirrel control should be carried out to adhere to animal welfare legislation and to keep the operator and the public safe. These guidelines are available to download here (pdf 89Kb).
Volunteer with your local Red Squirrel Group or start a new one if there are none close to you, we can help. Further information on the work and locations of the Red Squirrel Groups in Northern Ireland is available here.