The release follows the zoo’s most successful year with this iconic species. Over the past 12 months, 10 red squirrel kittens have been born at Belfast Zoo and six animals have previously been released to the Silent Valley Mountain Park.
The latest captive-bred squirrels will provide welcome reinforcement to Montalto Estate’s small contingent of red squirrels, which are just starting to make a comeback, after years of absence.
Competition from the invasive non-native grey squirrel for food and shelter, combined with infection by the deadly squirrel pox virus, which greys transmit, steadily forced reds out of Montalto and the surrounding area and led to their decline.
But thanks to partnership efforts to remove encroaching greys and enhance the woodland with native trees, wildlife conservationists are hopeful that the new additions will flourish alongside the resurging red population, boosting numbers once more.
Shanna Rice, Red Squirrel Officer with Ulster Wildlife, said: “This is fantastic news in the race to save our much-loved red squirrel. We are delighted to have worked with Montalto’s Ranger, Wilson Johnston and volunteers from the Heart of Down Red Squirrel Group to help create a prime and safe location for reds to survive and thrive through our Red Squirrels United project. With any luck, the reds will spread into the surrounding area which would be a great conservation success story.”
The squirrels were initially housed in a soft release pen built at the estate in order to help them get used to their new surroundings. After a week, the enclosure was opened and the squirrels were given access to the woodland, where a number of feeders and trail cameras, donated by Ulster Wildlife, have been placed.