Belfast Zoo has recently been awarded a silver award from professional body BIAZA (British & Irish Association of Zoos & Aquariums) for its dedication to red squirrel conservation.
The award follows the fantastic news in May, which saw Belfast Zoo-born red squirrels, breeding in the wild at Montalto Estate.
Belfast Zoo has also recently released another red squirrel onto this site. It is hoped that the red squirrel population will continue to breed and thrive in the area.
There has been red squirrel breeding success inside the zoo this year also, with five more red squirrel kittens being born. These important new arrivals will go on to help populate suitable areas in the wild in future.
Zoo manager Alyn Cairns said: ‘‘The recognition by BIAZA for our red squirrel conservation programme is excellent news.
“We would like to show our appreciation to BIAZA and thank them for recognising the dedication of our animal care team for our native conservation efforts.
“We are extremely thankful for having such a dedicated and driven animal care team and this award and recognition wouldn’t have been possible without their tireless work.”
Three Belfast Zoo red squirrels moved to St Francis’ primary school recently to help educate the local community on native species and to help the aims of the breeding programme.
The school has since won an ‘environmental project of the year’ award for its conservation efforts with red squirrels.
The zoo’s red squirrel project shows no signs of slowing down, with two further releases of red squirrels planned for September to both the County Antrim and south Down areas.
The zoo is also in discussion with Queen’s University to coordinate red squirrel research to better understand these endangered mammals and potentially aid in further conservation developments in the future.
Northern Ireland’s red squirrel population has dramatically declined in recent years due to the loss of their forest habitats.
In addition to this, the red squirrels also face huge competition from the invasive grey squirrel that carries a lethal pox virus.
In 2011, more than 90 per cent of Tollymore Forest’s red squirrel population was wiped out by the virus, and in 2012 research suggested that red squirrels are no longer present in Belvoir Park.
Zoo manager Alyn Cairns explained: “We are highly committed to protecting endangered species from all over the world, but it is also vital to support our native wildlife. We take a special pride in boosting the numbers of our much-loved native red squirrels.
“The iconic species is believed to have been present in Ireland for more than 10,000 years, but the population has dramatically declined in the modern era, so it is heartening to see our zoo bred red squirrels play an active role in slowly repopulating protected areas across the country. Much of our work wouldn’t be possible without the help of the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum, Ulster Wildlife Trust, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and our own visitors.”
When the zoo’s red squirrel nook was first established in 2012, the predominant aim was to educate visitors about the iconic native animal and the risks threatening the species.
It was also hoped that the red squirrels in the nook would eventually breed and help with repopulation. They did and the first zoo-born red squirrels were released into Glenarm Estate in 2014. Belfast Zoo born red squirrels have been released at a total four different sites around Northern Ireland.
Belfast Zoo supports projects for a number of Northern Ireland’s native species including red squirrels, barn owls, swifts, Irish black honeybees and hedgehogs.