Extinct in Ireland, September 21st – the red squirrel

OK, this entry in my September series of species rendered extinct in Ireland since human settlement here may cause many readers to do a double-take. The red squirrel? Extinct? But … isn’t the red squirrel not only with us, but making a comeback

“Iconic” is a highly over-used word, but in the case of the red squirrel and the context of Ireland’s mammalian fauna it seems apt. Indeed, I discovered the National Biodiversity Data Centre having seen a red squirrel near Marlfield in Clonmel. I thought “there must be some way of reporting this” and thus the at times quite compulsive world of biodiversity data submission was revealed to me.

The widely known story of Irish squirrels is one in which the native red squirrel has been displaced by the implacable invasion of the grey squirrel. In recent years however the tables have turned a bit, amongst other reasons due to the resurgence of the pine marten (like the corncrake, a species which has nearly made it onto this list, albeit unlike the corncrake it seems to have bounced back.

What is forgotten is that contemporary Irish red squirrels are actually the descendants of introduced animals. From Pádraic Fogarty’s Whittled Away:

Generally considered a native species,. Went extinct , probably due to deforestation, although also exploited for its pelt, around the end of the eighteenth century. Reintroduced with stock from England between 1815 and 1876.

Fogarty has a rather dry sense of humour which is never more evident as during the more discursive passages on the squirrel story in the chapter in Whittled Away on extinct Irish species. The reintroduction of the red squirrel, like the reintroduction of the Capercaillie in Scotland, was an example of rewilding avant la lettre.

In the past I had some rewilding. After all, isn’t it perpetuating the illusion that we are in control of nature, and isn’t it an enterprise fraught with the prospect of unintended consequences. My view has changed on this with more reading and a more nuanced understanding. Fogarty, like other authors I respect, is enthusiastic about it (in fairness to myself some mass media articles about it miss out on the nuance). For a while I ignorantly thought it was simply re-introducing “iconic” species for the sake of it, not realising that the whole principle is that a whole ecosystem surrounds those animals. I think now that it is something that needs to be done with care and consideration.

This article from Ireland’s Wildlife has more detail on the 19th Century reintroductions:

Luckily, we are quite fortunate to have an excellent account of the red squirrel in Ireland during the 1800s. Richard Barrington, an important Irish naturalist conducted a distribution study of the red squirrel in Ireland in 1880, a paper titled “On the introduction of the red squirrel into Ireland”. Barrington believed that there were no trustworthy early records of red squirrels in Ireland, and that they were never naturally here. In fact, he disputes some of the historical mentions of red squirrels as erroneous, and quite openly criticises the ‘humbler classes’ for not knowing their pine marten from a stoat. He must have been quite the character! We now know that red squirrels did exist in Ireland prior to their reintroduction in the 1800s as the historical export records showed that thousands of red squirrel skins were annually exported from Ireland in the 16th century. The cessation of these exports coincided with an international depression in the fur trading market. Woodland cover was also depleted over this time due to large scale deforestation which drastically reduced the available habitat for red squirrels. Forest cover in Ireland around the year 1600 was estimated to be anywhere between 3-12%. A combination of these factors probably led to the extinction of the red squirrel in Ireland. If red squirrels did survive this period, they were likely to have been found in remote areas that were too difficult to extract the timber from, and therefore were also likely to go unobserved and undocumented.

Back in 1880 with no access to the wonderful mapping system now available at the National Biodiversity Data Centre http://www.biodiversityireland.ie/, one had to write to one’s friends to establish the presence or absence of a species. Barrington wrote to the big houses in Ireland to establish if the red squirrel was present in their area, and if so when its arrival was first noted, and had any introductions been documented?

What emerged from this was some very interesting information. The first documented introduction of the red squirrel in Ireland refers to dates between 1815 and 1825 in Glenmore Estate, Ashford, Co. Wicklow. Other introductions are referred to in Castle Howard estate in Co. Wicklow, where the Countess of Wicklow, Alice Howard, was said to have introduced the species. The Wicklow introduction had spread into Dublin by 1861, and a separate introduction conducted by Joseph Shackleton also took place in Lucan, Dublin in 1876. Joseph was a relative of the great Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton.

Colonel Bruen was reported to have introduced red squirrels into Co. Carlow. At the time of writing, Barrington also had reports of red squirrels in Abbeyleix and Portarlington, and considered that these may have originated from another introduction. Red squirrels were introduced into Birr Castle Co. Offaly by Lord Rosse around the date of 1864. These red squirrels were said to have originated from Sussex and Yorkshire . Barrington believed that these red squirrels had subsequently spread into Tipperary by the time of writing.

Red squirrels were reported to be quite common in Co. Galway in 1880. This was again attributed to an introduction into Castle Taylor, Garbally, by Lord and Lady Glancarty, who introduced two to four pairs of red squirrels that they obtained from London in 1833. A stable boy was later reported to have introduced the red squirrels from Galway into Roscommon in 1865. Red squirrels were also introduced into Castleforbes, Co. Longford between 1836 and 1837. An introduction into Rathowen, Co. Westmeath was also documented to have taken place, by the Battersby family.

In the North of the country, red squirrels were reported near Ramelton, Co. Donegal. When Barrington investigated this, he found that a George Hill had kept tame red squirrels on his property, and it is likely that some escaped. Red squirrels were introduced from England into Moneyglass in Co. Antrim by the Egan family. This introduction was thought to have been successful as many locations in the surrounding area were reported to have red squirrels when Barrington wrote his paper in 1880. Introductions also took place into Co. Down and Louth in the 1850s.

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