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Red squirrel survey by Queen's University and University of St Andrews published

By Abbie Duncan

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A RECENT study has shown that the strategies currently used in the conservation of red squirrels may actually be having a negative impact on the population instead.

Hazel Thomson snapped this picture of a squirrel in Spynie Woods.
Hazel Thomson snapped this picture of a squirrel in Spynie Woods.

According to Woodland Trust red squirrel numbers have dramatically fallen in recent decades, with the population falling from 3.5 million to as little as 120,000. Current conservation strategies have focused on planting non-native plants to create larger and more diverse forests throughout the UK and Ireland, with the hope of helping increase squirrel populations while also tackling climate change.

However, new research from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of St Andrew’s challenges this approach to conservation. Over a five year period, cameras surveyed 700 sites across Northern Ireland observing red squirrels, grey squirrels and pine martens in their natural habitats. The results show that the non-native plantations, aimed at helping squirrel populations are instead having detrimental impact on the species survival due to a lack of hiding places from predators.

Instead it appears that a boost in the pine marten population, alongside more native trees and plants is more beneficial to the red squirrel than the current conservation strategy.

Pine martens are often found in the Scottish Highlands and have made a massive recovery in population in recent years. They are natural predators of both the red and grey squirrel but research has shown that the pine marten population actually benefits the red squirrel by providing natural population control of the invasive grey squirrel, which has replaced the red squirrel throughout much of Ireland and Britain.

The study was funded by the British Ecological Society.

Dr. Joshua P. Twining, lead author of the study believes this could provide a positive change for conservation, stating: “This work shows that we need to develop an alternative national conservation strategy for the red squirrel, focused on planting native woodlands alongside continued pine marten recovery.”

Dr Chris Sutherland, from University of St Andrews, added: "This research demonstrates the enormous value of large scale date collected through public participation."

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