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Hello again: Red squirrels on rise thanks to pine martens

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The outlook for the red squirrel here is said to be. Photo: PA Wire

The outlook for the red squirrel here is said to be. Photo: PA Wire

The outlook for the red squirrel here is said to be. Photo: PA Wire

One of the country's best loved native animals, the red squirrel, has staged a valiant comeback after its numbers fell dangerously low.

And it has its enemy's enemy to thank for its return.

The woodland dweller, once a no-show in large parts of the country, is now found in every county.

Meanwhile its arch-enemy, the non-native grey squirrel, which competes with it for food and carries a pox fatal to reds, is gone from some of its previous strongholds.

Wildlife experts attribute the turnaround to the recovery of another native species, the pine marten, whose numbers have grown since it was given added legal protections.

Pine martens prey on squirrels but, after centuries inhabiting the same territory, the red squirrel is wise to its tricks. The grey squirrel, despite being twice the size of its red cousin, has only been in Ireland for 100 years and appears to be vulnerable to the pine marten's stealth.

A study over the past year found midland counties provided the clearest illustration. The grey squirrel was first introduced in this area but it has disappeared there while the pine marten, which had all but vanished from the region, was thriving there and red squirrel numbers also increased.

The overall range of grey squirrels was down by 38pc, the pine martens up 34pc and the red squirrels up 4.5pc.

"The outlook for the two native species is very good," the report said.

It added, however: "There is a concern that this could lead to a perception that no further work is required on these animals. The situation remains dynamic."

It also noted that the return of the pine marten may not be welcomed by farmers and gamekeepers. "The positive aspects of the return of this native species, still under threat in other areas of its historic global range, should be highlighted," it said.

The survey was carried out by citizen scientists organised by a team at NUI Galway and Ulster Wildlife, with assistance from the Biodiversity Data Centre and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Liam Lysaght of the Biodiversity Data Centre said he found the turnaround for the shy red squirrel extraordinary, but he added that those who remain charmed by the bolder grey squirrel's antics should not fear their complete demise.

"Some people have said they should be eradicated but that's not practical and I don't think it's necessary," he said.

"It's always going to be a dynamic relationship so we do need to watch how it develops but I think it should be possible for all three to co-exist successfully."

Irish Independent