Belfast Zoo will mark national Red Squirrel Awareness Week with the release of red squirrels at both Dunnywater and Carnfunnock Country Park.
Despite being present for more than 10,000 years, red squirrels have declined dramatically due to loss of habitat and diseases spread by the invasive grey squirrel.
Zoo Manager Alyn Cairns said: “We have had an exceptional year with our red squirrels and we are delighted that we are able to add Dunnywater as a sixth release site for the zoo’s breeding programme.
“The site, outside Annalong, was deemed suitable for the release of two red squirrels due to the ongoing efforts of several organisations, including Mourne Heritage Trust, Belfast Zoo, The Forest Service, NI Water and The Northern Ireland Environment Agency, who came together to prepare the area as part of a nationwide scheme to enhance the population of this beautiful and threatened species.
“Two additional squirrels will also be released at Carnfunnock Country Park, a site which saw the successful release of several red squirrels from the zoo last year.”
The squirrels will be managed by Ballygally & District Biodiversity Group, which has been working tirelessly for the past five years to raise awareness around the issues facing reds and has been an active partner in the special breeding programme led by Belfast Zoo.
The two Belfast Zoo-born squirrels are being cared for by St Francis’ Primary school, a successful eco school based in Lurgan.
The two squirrels left the school’s purpose built sanctuary last week and have been moved into their release pen for a few days to allow them to familiarise themselves with the surrounding wood before release.”
Joe Dowdall, Senior Red Squirrel Ranger with the Ballygally Biodiversity Group, said: “The group are very pleased to co-operate again with Belfast Zoo and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council in furthering the red squirrel re-introduction programme in Carnfunnock Country Park and Chaines Wood.
“The additional red squirrels are most welcome and will join the other four reds successfully released last year.”
Dave Farnan, Area Ranger, Mourne Heritage Trust, said: “Mourne Heritage Trust has been carrying out a red squirrel conservation project since 2011 and we are delighted that Belfast Zoo has provided two animals from their breeding programme for release in the Mournes.
“The squirrels are currently residing in our release pen and are well fed, watered and sheltered in a quiet spot on our Dunnywater/Annalong Wood tree nursery site.
“This will allow them to familiarise themselves with their new environment before they are released.
“Partners in the Mournes project have been NI Water, Forest Service, Woodland Trust, Ulster Wildlife Trust, NIEA, Belfast Zoo, and of course St Francis School in Lurgan – where the current two squirrels have come from, as part of their Zoo holding partnership. Many thanks from Mourne Heritage Trust to the pupils and teachers at St Francis.”