The Mourne Heritage Trust, NI Water and Mourne Park Estate
The Mourne Heritage Trust (MHT) have been working three major sites in the southern Mournes to eradicate grey squirrels to allow the natural return of reds. MHT volunteers and staff started clearing Silent Valley with the consent of NI Water the landowner in 2011. The site and adjoining river corridors were cleared within 2 years with very few incursions since. A network of local surveillance volunteers and cameras has been established to monitor for squirrel movements to date only one red squirrel has been spotted but in June 2018 several animals were released into the area to start a small breeding population. Two of these animals have come from the successful Belfast Zoo breeding programme.
Work on another site close by has led to a natural recolonisation of red squirrels following the removal of greys.
A more ambiguous programme was started in 2012 at private land in the Southern Mournes near Kilkeel on the Mourne Park Estate. Until 2012 it was overrun with grey squirrels but the landowner permitted a very dedicated volunteer to control greys across their site and reds returned in 2015. These reds were supplemented with 8 squirrels from 3 sites in other parts of NI. To date this has been a very successful project with a huge amount of local interest. The Estate, large parts of which are now since 2022 under the management of the Woodland Trust sees the reds as a potential tourist draw and asset. Of course continuous monitoring is required to watch for greys but once again local engagement means that any spotted within a wide radius quickly get report and control effort begins. Additionally the work of the Red Squirrels United team has further strengthened the future of this project.
NT Castle Ward The latest red squirrel release site has been in the Forum’s sights for several years. In October 2022 several red squirrels were released on the site from the Belfast Zoo Breeding programme. The woodlands and plantation forest at Castle Ward has historic records for red squirrels which appear to have disappeared in the 1980’s. Interesting grey squirrels although infrequently seen here have never become established. Careful monitoring and any necessary management will be deployed to ensure the project’s success. We are hoping to develop a Castle Ward Red Squirrel Volunteer group to assist in the project. We are taking a longer view on this project with a wider landscape project being proposed bringing in a number of private owners over the next few years.