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Non-native conifer plantations likely to 'have a damaging impact' on red squirrel conservation

A new study found that native predators in native woodland are key for the species to survive in Ireland and Britain.

File photo of a red squirrel in Co Laois.
File photo of a red squirrel in Co Laois.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

RED SQUIRREL CONSERVATION strategies that favour non-native conifer plantations are likely to negatively impact the species, new research has found. 

The study, led by Queen’s University Belfast and the University of St Andrew’s in Scotland, shows that native predators in native woodland, and not conifer plantations, are key for red squirrels to survive in Ireland and Britain.

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.

Researchers at Queen’s and St Andrew’s, along with Ulster Wildlife and citizen scientists, 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 found 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”.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and funded by the British Ecological Society, has shown that the presence of pine martens 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. However, it found that this effect is reversed in large non-native conifer plantations, where the pine marten reduces the occurrence of red squirrel. 

This could be due to the lack of alternate prey, and the lack of refuges for red squirrels in highly simplified landscapes.

However, the study states it is likely linked to the fact grey squirrels don’t do well in these habitats, and following the recovery of the pine marten, means red squirrels do not get the benefits of release from their nemesis as they do elsewhere in the landscape

pine-marten-martes-martes-in-the-snowireland-image-shot-2011-exact-date-unknown File photo of a pine marten. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Once restricted to the western counties of Ireland, the pine marten species has been able to recover to healthier numbers following its protection through the Wildlife Act in 1976.

Previous research has shown how the pine marten benefits the red squirrel by providing natural biological control of the invasive grey squirrel, which has largely replaced the red squirrel throughout much of Ireland and Britain.

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Lead author from Queen’s University Belfast Dr Joshua P. Twining said that while restoration of native predators is a critical conservation tool to combat the on-going biodiversity crisis, it must be in conjunction with maintenance and protection of natural, structurally complex habitats.

“This has global implications given the on-going recovery of predators in certain locations such as mainland Europe,” he said.

It also shows that the current national red squirrel conservation strategies that favor non-native confer plantations are likely to have the opposite impact to what is intended. Timber plantations are often promoted as being beneficial to red squirrel conservation, but our results show that they will have a detrimental effect on the species in the future.

Dr Chris Sutherland, from the University of St Andrews, said: “This research demonstrates the enormous value of large scale data collected through public participation. Combining this data with state-of-the-art analytical techniques has generated important conservation insights that until now have been overlooked.”

Ireland and the UK has some of the lowest forest cover in Europe, while over 75% of it is made up of non-native timber plantations.

Twining added: “This work shows that we need to develop an alternative national conservation strategy for the red squirrel, focused on planting native woodlands alongside continued pine marten recovery.”

About the author:

Jane Moore

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