Red squirrels born at Belfast Zoo on Cave Hill are leading the fight against extinction in Northern Ireland.
The captive breeding programme has seen four zoo squirrels – below Hazelwood nature reserve on Cave Hill – now being released into the wild in the Glens of Antrim.
It’s the first time native red squirrels have been reintroduced to the wild here as part of a captive breeding programme.
The animals were released in Glenarm Estate in early autumn 2015, and further releases are planned in the wake of a successful breeding season, according to the zoo.
Red squirrels first arrived at Belfast Zoo in 2012 when Taisie, Shesk and Oisin became the first inhabitants of ‘Red Squirrel Nook’. They had been brought from the Glens of Antrim by the Glens Red Squirrel Group.
The first kitten was born in 2013 and this year another six tiny squirrel kittens arrived, prompting Belfast Zoo, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum (NISF) to draw up plans for release arrangements.
The red squirrel is a priority species in Northern Ireland, with the animal suffering a severe decline in numbers in part, due to the influence of the invasive and alien grey squirrel.