Red squirrells and us.

Photo: Joe Kilroy.

A few days ago I was admiring the landscape from a train when I saw a red squirrel. Exciting!

In childhood I used to watch squirrels leaping about on the hillside trees outside my bedroom windows like foxy-coated trapeeze artists. There is something exhilerating about their movements.

When I got home I began painting a squirrel, then grew more curious and decided to read up on it. I know that a few years ago the native red was facing extinction as a species. Thankfully, there was good news waiting as began to research its current status.

The pine martin. Photo: Vincent Wildlife Trust.

NUIG researchers have discovered that Ireland’s pine martin population is increasing again.  And guess what the pine martin likes to snack on? Juicy grey squirrels.

As cute-looking as they are, grey squirrels are invaders that have been running amok and wreacking havoc to Ireland’s eco system, especially in recent decades. The grey is one of the main causes of the decline of our native red species.

Grey squirrel. Photo: Conserve Ireland.

The grey squirrel is not very nimble: it spends more time on the ground because of its heavier weight, which makes it easier for the pine martin to catch.

Grey squirrels prey on nests, which impacts on our native bird population. They also destroy tree bark, which in turn puts the trees at higher risk of fungal infection. Tut-tut.

In the 90s Ireland’s ash trees became diseased by a lethal pathogen that arrived via imports from Asia. As I write this, Ireland has about 11 per cent of land under forest, with a target to bring it up to 18 per cent by 2050. Journalist Tim O’Brien wrote in August 2020 about the failure of the Irish Department of Agriculture to make any real impact. A comment from the department admitted “Delays have occurred and the current backlog has arisen.

Scotts pine. Photo: Irish Wildlife Trust.

Thankfully, the squirrels are starting to thrive again regardless. I would vote squirrel for sure if one of them put themselves forward in the next general election.

Photo by Geert Weggen.

Ireland’s red squirrel is a small arboreal (tree dwelling) mammal that also eats berries, nuts, and fungi. The fact that it spreads the seeds of trees makes the red important for regenearating coniferous woodland ecosystems. The native red also spreads the spores of a fungi known as ‘mychorrizal’, which forms a symbiotic relationship with trees and is important to their survival.

Did you know that the squirrell could have such an impact? Before researching to write this, I certainly had no idea. As for our trees, they are crucial to the soil that produces nutritious food for us all, Ireland’s wildlife, and the very air we inhale. Everything is connected.

With thanks to Richard Hassall, Conservation UK, and Kevin O’Sullivan, and Tim O’Brien whose research and interviews I read to inform this piece.

Kathryn Crowley writes about culture, nature, and life from her nest in County Kerry, Ireland.

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