Red squirrel conservation strategies likely to undermine species survival in future - Queen’s University Belfast

New research has shown how current red squirrel conservation strategies in the UK and Ireland, that favour non-native conifer plantations, are likely to negatively impact red squirrels.

The research shows that native predators in native woodland, and not conifer plantations, are the key ingredients for red squirrel survival in Britain and Ireland. This contradicts existing red squirrel conservation strategies that promote non-native conifer planting and instead highlights the value native predators can deliver (to native biodiversity).

Current conifer plantation focused afforestation strategies in the UK and Ireland are sold as a nature-based solution for tackling climate change and the biodiversity crisis, particularly that of the threatened flagship species the red squirrel.

However, new research from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of St Andrew’s challenges this approach. Together with Ulster Wildlife and citizen scientists, they used camera traps to survey over 700 sites across Northern Ireland over a five-year period for red squirrels, grey squirrels and pine martens. The results show that with the recovery of the pine marten, conifer plantations planted under the guise of protecting the red squirrel, are likely to have a damaging impact on the species survival.

Until recently, the pine marten was a little-known elusive member of the weasel family, restricted to the northern reaches of the Scottish Highlands, and the western counties of Ireland. Following its protection in the 70s and 80s, this native predator has made an astounding recovery. Previous research has shown how the pine marten benefits the red squirrel by providing natural biological control of the invasive grey squirrel, which has replaced the red squirrel throughout much of Ireland and Britain.

New research, published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and funded by the British Ecological Society, has shown that the presence of pine marten increases red squirrel occurrence across the landscape, especially in native broadleaf woodlands. This is because the pine marten suppresses the grey squirrel regardless of habitat.

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Posted On: 12/01/2022

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