Belfast Zoo has welcomed 2 red squirrel kittens as part of Northern Ireland’s only breeding program for the species.
These two are the 2nd lot of kittens to have been born at Belfast Zoo since the opening of red squirrel nook in 2012. They first had success in 2012 with one kitten being born.
The Belfast Zoo works as a member of the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum (NISF) a group that brings together people committed to saving these squirrels. It is chaired by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. It also includes local councils, conservation groups and red squirrel action groups.
Declan Looney, the chairperson of the NISF explained Belfast Zoo’s work with the species, ‘Belfast Zoo is recognised around the world for the conservation work they do with exotic and endangered animals. However, they are also committed to protecting our native wildlife. You do not need to look much further than your own doorstep to witness the plight of species under threat and I am delighted that the zoo has been able to bring this to the forefront of their visitors’ minds.’
The red squirrel has recently been under threat throughout Northern Ireland. Looney explained their plight, ‘In 2011, more than 90% of Tollymore Forest’s red squirrel population was wiped out by the squirrel pox virus carried by the invasive grey squirrel and, in 2012, research suggested that the red squirrel is no longer present at Belvoir Park.’
The zoo’s curator, Alyn Cairns, ‘The zoo, NIEA and the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum have already drawn up complex breeding agreements.’
Plans are afoot for the baby squirrels to one day return to the wild, ‘The hope is that any offspring from the squirrels living at the zoo will supplement the current, safe red squirrel populations or potentially populate suitable new areas.’
Belfast Zoo staff are very excited about this possibility as Looney explained, ‘it is encouraging to see the results of our efforts with the first captive breeding programme in Northern Ireland. We are delighted that this project will potentially provide a ‘safety net’ population of red squirrels.’
Photo Credit: Belfast Zoo