Protecting Inishowen’s sanctuary for red squirrels

A red squirrel in Lis Na Gra woods. Photo: Bren Whelan.
A red squirrel in Lis Na Gra woods. Photo: Bren Whelan.

Lis na Gra Woods’ status as a sanctuary for red squirrels is being threatened by the irresponsible behaviour of those who dump litter and leave the remains of overnight parties.

The ‘Journal’ recently visited the woods with Bren Whelan, an trainer with Leave No Trace Ireland, which promotes and inspires “responsible outdoor recreation through education, research and partnership.’

The breakdown timeline of discarded items in the woods. Photo: Bren Whelan.

The breakdown timeline of discarded items in the woods. Photo: Bren Whelan.

The visit was preceded by yet another incident of illegal dumping in the woods, thought to be a result of a party or large gathering. A number of items were left behind, including glass bottles, beer cans, paper and plastic bags and a fire had been lit, leaving a large scorch mark along the foliage.

These increasing incidents are somewhat of a concern at the location, despite the fact much work has been done to protect it.

This includes the installation of cameras by Donegal County Council to identify litterers, as well as regular clean-ups and awareness by groups such as the Knowhead Scouts and Muff Community Forum.

Bren said the importance of the woods as a haven for the red squirrel cannot be underestimated and must be conserved and protected.

The woodland after it has been cleaned-up by the Council and restored by Bren.

The woodland after it has been cleaned-up by the Council and restored by Bren.

He told how the North West Squirrel Group and Wild Inishowen are also doing “great work” in documenting the red squirrel population on both sides of the border.

He added that Lis na Gra Woods is recognised as the largest sanctuary for red squirrels in Inishowen, Donegal and perhaps even the country, with upwards of a dozen seeking refuge there.

Those who visit the woods regularly, for walking and relaxation, are familiar with the red squirrels, who are not shy about making their presence known, running among and up the trees.

Bren told how the red squirrel population - a protected species under the Wildlife Act - are already under threat due to the increase in the number of grey squirrels in Derry and Inishowen.

The grey squirrels threaten the reds by bringing disease as well as being competition for food, although none have been spotted in Lis na Gra - yet.

Bren said the red squirrels “love” Lis na Gra Woods, planted in the 1800s and belonging to the Harte family, due to the fact it is a mixed forest, with trees such as native Scots pine trees, oak and beech on one side and then a fully coniferous forest on the other. This is beneficial to the squirrels because the habitat ensures an abundance of woodland fruits, berry trees and fungi.

“It’s like an oasis in terms of habitat,” said Bren.

But, this is being threatened due in no small part by those who leave their waste and rubbish in the woods - something completely at odds with the Leave No Trace principles. The council promptly cleaned up the remains of the recent party, with beer bottles, tents, plastic bags, food remains, packaging and much more regularly left behind.

However, a walk around the woods shows more rubbish nestled behind branches and in trees and shrubbery.

There is an aluminium can, which Bren points out can take 400-500 million years to break down, a plastic bag which can take 20-30 years and a paper cup, which can take five years.

All of these don’t just have an environmental impact, but are also dangerous to the squirrels who have made the woods their haven.

The broken glass from the bottles can cut their feet, making movement difficult and this, in turncauses problems with finding food. If the squirrels and other small animals are foraging, they can get caught in a plastic bag or eat pieces they can’t digest. The plastic ‘rings’ and pulls from six-pack cans are common cause of choking and strangulation in woodland animals.

So, what can be done?

Bren said everyone who uses the woods can adhere to the Leave No Trace Ireland principles - plan ahead and prepare; be considerate of others; respect farm animals and wildlife; travel and camp on durable ground; leave what you find; dispose of waste properly and minimise the effects of fire.

Leave No Trace states that practising their ethic is very simple: “Make it hard for others to see or hear you and leave no trace of your visit.”

Bren said members of the public can also contact Gardai in Buncrana if they are aware of groups going into the woods - which is overseen by Coillte - and have concerns they may engage in anti-social behaviour.

Also, one of the single biggest threats to the red squirrel population is any opportunity for a grey squirrel to scavenge which can bring them closer and closer to Lis na Gra.

Bren urged any householder who may have ‘adopted’ a grey squirrel - which eat loose food such as that from bird feeders - not to over feed it.

Many interest groups are fighting for the survival of the red squirrel and losing them would be a “huge blow” for the area,

Bren stresses that education and awareness of our environment and the importance of natural habitat is also key, something the Leave No Trace Champions Award is all about.

Donegal County Council provided the second biggest allocation of funding for this project last year with Bren visiting different schools around Inishowen, teaching them about the Leave No Trace ethic and increasing awareness of the importance of environment and leaving it as you find it.

Leave No Trace Ireland stresses how an ethic can be defined as knowing the right thing to do and doing it, even if there is no-one around to see you do it. Bren says it is this, along with education and awareness, which will ensure Lis na Gra woods remains as an important sanctuary for our red squirrel population.

Find out more about Leave No Trace Ireland at www.leavenotrace.org.