IF you are lucky to live near a woodland area, you will surely have seen one of our most secretive species in Kerry – the red squirrel.
There are two species of squirrel in Ireland; the native red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) and the introduced American grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Red squirrels are considered a native Irish animal. Their populations have always fluctuated but a combination of deforestation, hunting, natural decrease in population may have caused their disappearance from Ireland in the 18th century.
The red squirrel was reintroduced from British stock on a number of occasions during the 19th century and seemed to flourish until the grey squirrel was introduced as a gift at a wedding in Longford at the beginning of the 20th century from the US.
As they spread from Longford throughout the east and midlands the river Shannon finally halted the march of the grey squirrel. In the meantime however, the red squirrel has started to disappear from certain areas as a result of the impact by the grey squirrel and a large gap has appeared in the distribution of the reds, covering much of the midlands. Kerry and the south western region is important as a stronghold for the red squirrel as the grey squirrel has yet to reach our corner of the island.
The grey squirrel is here to stay and so conservation efforts must be concentrated on promoting the survival of the reds. 'Red-friendly' woods, consisting of purely coniferous woodlands with a number of different tree species must be promoted and supplementary feeding programmes introduced. It is through the intervention of man that the current situation has developed, and without our efforts, the red squirrel may be lost to Ireland forever.
Red squirrels require woodland to survive, feeding mainly on seeds and nuts. Their dreys, or nests are built in the trees, usually close to the main trunk and are made of twigs, leaves and moss. Red squirrels can hold their own against the greys in coniferous woodlands, thriving when a mix of conifer trees is present, but in deciduous woodland the grey will usually take over. This is possibly because the grey has a more varied diet. Their dominance may also be due to the fact that they may carry a disease called the parapox virus, which kills red squirrels but does not affect the greys. The story of the red and grey squirrels is another example of the damage caused by introducing non-native species to Ireland.