Yesterday, in the afternoon, the Autumn sun in all its watery light, lured us outdoors. We all hopped in the car and decided to go to where my dad’s offices are; the beautiful Castle Archdale Country Park. We were hugely excited as my dad had discovered a new ‘out of the way’ path for us to explore and also found something very special scuttling in the trees.
As we strolled, the Autumn light slanted through the almost translucent leaves, making the whole place glow in a sacred illumination. It was glorious and magical. The pungent leafy carpet, the ripe fungi; intoxicating scent was welcomingly overpowering. The bursts of short lived life and the decaying crunch underfoot, perfect duet of life and change.
We had hardly walked a quarter of a mile and my dad was showing us a really special 250 year old oak. when a flash of red scampered through the tree! I couldn’t believe my eyes, I had finally seen a red squirrel! We could hardly contain our excitement, this sort of chance encounter is like a rare jewel, the surprise is just an amazing feeling for a young naturalist. Quickly, I took my camera and snapped these photographs, I think they’re almost good!
First came the fuzzy bush of a tail and then it properly emerged!! The native red squirrel in its native oak tree. My name, Dara, actually means Oak in Irish, I love that!
These beautifully striking mammals are now so endangered, we are at risk of losing them forever. Historically, the Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) is thought to have been in Ireland since the end of the last Ice Age and since then, because of loss of woodland – Northern Ireland is one of the least forested areas of Europe (7%), here in Fermanagh though, we have the largest proportion of woodland and so, can really help them make a comeback here! The Fermanagh Red Squirrel Group do tremendous work to conserve the red squirrel, please have a look at their web-site to get involved! The red squirrel also have a nemesis, the invasive Grey Squirrel! This North-America imposter entered Ireland in 1911, when six pairs were released at Castle Forbes in County Longford. The first grey was spotted in Fermanagh in 1946. Disaster!! They have colonised Ireland in such a short space of time, their effects have been catastrophic. The greys can outdo the reds as they are bigger, eat a more varied diet and they also carry the squirrel pox virus and this has been devastating Irish red squirrels. Squirrel pox was confirmed in red squirrels in Tollymore Forest Park,Co. Down in 2011 – the Tollymore Red Squirrel Group have reported a 90% loss in number since then. How absolutely heartbreaking that this is happening, it makes me really sad and angry, but I also feel hope as there are dedicated individuals and groups that are helping red squirrels here. The success of the pine marten, particularly here in Fermanagh is also a great way to down size the population of grey squirrels. It is against the law to introduce grey squirrels and if seen can be trapped and destroyed. It is important to confirm sightings of grey squirrels in an area where reds are also present, although I think the many organisations out there around Ireland and the UK are probably two steps ahead, personally though, I think its a good idea to confirm and report wildlife sightings as this helps scientists get a fuller picture, it also means you are a citizen scientist and that’s pretty cool!!
The red squirrel is highly protected as a priority species under the Wildlife NI Order and it is just an amazing sight to see. We saw this male without his tufts which drop off after the breeding season is over. Squirrels home in a drey and the young go out into the world at around seven weeks, we think our red squirrel lives in a drey at the old oak tree as it’s a perfect habitat and there are lots of conifers nearby too. The red squirrel hoard their pine cones and can build an extensive larder of up to 2,000 cones! Amazing! Red squirrels don’t really eat acorns like the greys as they find them hard to stomach. Red squirrels are actually pretty good swimmers and they actually don’t hibernate, although like us, they like to stay inside for a while if it’s particularly cold outside (well actually not me, I like to be outside in all weathers!). When we were little mum used to read us the stories of Beatrix Potter and her Tale of Squirrel Nutkin was a big favourite of my little sister.
It was an honour to spot this little red bundle of fuzziness, I really hope that their numbers start to increase and that others can be awarded this sight in the future.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my encounter and some fun facts on the red squirrel!