There could be as few as 100 red squirrels across Co Derry according to the latest estimates.
Stormont’s Environment Minister Mark H Durkan says there are difficulties in documenting squirrel numbers and has appealed to the North West public to both help document and protect the red squirrel population.
“It is much easier to record whether the animals are present or absent from an area,” he says.
“Much of the presence or absence data we have for squirrels in Northern Ireland is patchy outside the areas that are directly managed by DARD Forest Service or the DOE / Northern Ireland Environment Agency and those areas where we have a community red squirrel group.”
Currently the North-West Red Squirrel Group (NWRSG) - a collective of volunteers - monitor the animal’s numbers locally.
NWRSG suggest that there are around 100 reds within the area they cover - Culmore, Learmount Forest, Prehen Wood, St Columb’s Park, Gransha Wood and Muff Glen.
Minister Durkan continued:“It is fair to say that most of our red squirrels live within isolated pockets of commercial forestry surrounded either by unsuitable habitat or lower quality habitat which contains grey squirrels.
“While habitat loss remains a significant problem, it is perhaps one that can be managed through sustainable planning and tree planting schemes, the major problem that our reds face is competition for food resources and disease spread by grey squirrels.
“Red Squirrels can still be seen in St Columb’s Park, but so can greys, therefore for the future of these reds to be made more certain there needs to be an active removal of any greys from the wider area.”
Grey squirrels can carry a disease known as Squirrel pox which does not seem to affect them. But if passed onto a red it is fatal.
Squirrels with squirrel pox have swelling and discharge from lesions around the eyes mouth and feet, and become increasingly lethargic as the disease progresses. Infected animals normally die within 15 days.
Records show that the red squirrel were once widespread across County Derry, but now little is known outside the areas covered by NWRSG. The Department of the Environment is asking walkers, landowners and wildlife lovers to help document sightings. You can get more information online atwww2.habitas.org.uk/squirrels
Pet owners have also been urged to fit cats with bells and keep dogs on the lead within red squirrel areas to help protect animal numbers.