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Thursday, April 1, 1999 Published at 00:37 GMT 01:37 UK


Stormont squirrels bridge the divide

The red squirrel: Surviving at Stormont

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Inside Stormont castle, the imposing edifice on the outskirts of Belfast, politicians work tirelessly to try to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

And outside, in the castle grounds, nature herself offers a rare example of co-existence - grey and red squirrels living together in harmony.

The greys arrived in the woods of the Stormont estate a few years ago, and that would normally have spelt the end of the red squirrels.

As they are less adept at exploiting natural food sources, they normally die out within a decade of the greys' arrival.

Foiling the marauders

This time, though, the reds have been given a helping hand. The Ulster Wildlife Trust and Northern Ireland's environment and heritage service have combined to provide them with extra food and special feeding tables.

Members of the estate staff maintain the feeders, which the grey squirrels cannot use.

And more than 40 red squirrels, one of the last remaining populations in Belfast, continue to live in apparent harmony with the invaders.

[ image: Greys exploit whatever food they find]
Greys exploit whatever food they find
Grey squirrels were introduced to the UK at the end of the 19th Century and now total about 1.5 million animals, five times more than the reds.

The red squirrels are now virtually extinct in southern England, and even in the north and in Scotland they are under growing pressure.

They are at risk across most of Northern Ireland. But the trust thinks the co-operation between conservationists, landowners and government agencies at Stormont offers a working model that could be used elsewhere.

The reds are a priority species under the UK biodiversity action plan.

The Wildlife Trusts, which co-ordinate the work of the 46 county trusts, say the Stormont example is very rare.

They know of only two similar cases, one in Scotland, and the other in County Fermanagh.

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