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Red squirrels get boost in battle against greys thanks to elusive predator

An elusive rodent-eating predator has become an unlikely hero for one of Britain’s most endangered species – the red squirrel.

The pine marten has made a dramatic recovery in numbers which eats far more non-native grey squirrels, boosting numbers of threatened reds.

Red squirrels were recently named on the Red List of Britain’s endangered animals, with experts warning they could face extinction in 10 years without action.

Numbers fell dramatically since larger greys from America were introduced in the 1870s. There are now thought to be between 120,000 to 160,000 with three-quarters found in Scotland down from 3.5 million when greys first arrived.

Worryingly the population in England, made famous by Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, is now thought to be as low as 15,000 as greys outcompete reds for food and can also pass on deadly squirrelpox.

Red squirrel
Red squirrels are on the endangered red list

But thanks to the recovery of the pine marten, after decades of persecution by farmers and being killed for their fur, it has unexpectedly revived red squirrel populations, both in Scotland and Ireland – giving hope to England’s dwindling populations.

The Mirror joined Ulster Wildlife Trust to witness how natural foes have become unwitting allies in County Fermanagh, the only area in Northern Ireland to be free of grey squirrels.

Red squirrel
The could now be saved by an unlikely ally

The relationship has also allowed the woodlands here damaged by the greys to recover.

Katy Bell, senior conservation officer at Ulster Wildlife Trust, said: “Red squirrels here have gained an unusual ally.

Ulster Wildlife
Katy Bell from Ulster Wildlife

“In County Fermanagh there are now healthy populations of both red squirrels and pine martens, with the two existing alongside each other. “

She explained how while the martens also prey on red squirrels, one of the few predators agile enough to climb trees, they actually do so at a far lower level than with the greys. It is believed one reason for this could be that pine martens and red squirrels – both native to Europe – evolved alongside one another and as such red squirrels are more aware of the threat of the pine marten than the American grey squirrel.

Male red squirrel
There are now healthy populations of both red squirrels and pine martens in County Fermanagh

Although the news is a positive step towards protecting the UK’s red squirrel populations, she warned how the species is still at risk.

Once widespread in Britain, pine martens, part of the weasel family, have mostly retreated to the remotest corners of the Scottish Highlands, with a population of three to four thousand. Ireland has similar numbers.

In 2015, after 30 years of research, the Vincent Wildlife Trust (VWT) began a landmark project to translocate 51 pine martens to mid-Wales, now thriving, with successful breeding every year.In Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean, 18 pine martens were released in 2019, giving birth to their first kits last year. Plans for more reintroduction programmes are due to be announced later this year.

Nada Farhoud seeks out red squirrels at Castle Archdale Country Park
Nada Farhoud seeks out red squirrels at Castle Archdale Country Park in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland

Fantastic creatures

For trophy hunters, the “big five” are the toughest, most dangerous animals to kill.

But a year-long photography project has turned the meaning on its head, creating a new list of the five most fantastic creatures to capture on camera.

More than 50,000 people from around the world voted for animals they most liked seeing pictures of as part of the New Big 5 wildlife photography list.

Elephant, lion, polar bear, gorilla and tiger came top – all of which are keystone species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as either critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.

“They’re a stark reminder of what’s at stake if we don’t change our ways,” said photographer Marsel van Oosten, who is involved in the project.

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Cracking down on poachers

Lie detector tests are to be introduced for staff at Kruger National Park amid fears that international poaching gangs have infiltrated the ranger force in South Africa’s renowned reserve.

The park boasts the world’s largest concentration of rhinoceroses, but has lost two thirds of its numbers to poachers over the past decade.

More than 40 park workers have been sacked for involvement in the slaughter during the same period.

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