DNA unravels red squirrel history and finds they are at risk of dying out

As populations have been heavily influenced by people, red squirrels will continue to need management and intervention if they are to survive into the future, researchers have found.

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Researchers have used DNA to unravel the complex history of one of Ireland’s favourite wild animals - the red squirrel. What they discovered could prompt a rethink about how we use genetics to conserve and manage the Irish red squirrel.

The new collaborative study published in Mammal Research and led by Dr. Denise O’Meara of Waterford Institute of Technology has shed some light on the complicated history of the red squirrel in Ireland.

Dr. O’Meara explains “with the aid of genetics, we were able to trace the genetic heritage of the red squirrel, and make recommendations for its future conservation management”.

The Irish red squirrel population retains a genetic footprint of a mixed ancestry. Some red squirrels can have their heritage traced to Great Britain, while others retain a continental European heritage. While it might appear beneficial to the species to have such a broad genetic background, a new study has shown that the pockets of red squirrels found throughout Ireland today are not well mixed and many of the populations appear to be genetically isolated and at risk of dying out in the future.

Dr. O’Meara and colleagues suggest that because these populations have been heavily influenced by people, they will continue to need management and intervention if they are to survive into the future.

“Ireland’s level of forest cover is still one of the lowest in Europe, and clear-felling and over-thinning is a threat to the red squirrels survival. To help conserve them, continuous forest cover should be practiced, and high quality hedgerows with plenty of trees should be generated and maintained to create a well-connected hedgerow network that enables red squirrels to move between sites,” Dr. O’Meara says.

Dr. O’Meara states the importance of the Irish population for future restoration projects in Great Britain. “Many of the red squirrel genetic strains found in Ireland have died out in Great Britain, particularly in England. Should population restoration or enhancement projects be considered in England, the Irish population is an important population for consideration. However, the Irish population also needs appropriate management to conserve it for future generations. Given the importance of the red squirrel to both islands, it could be considered a joint responsibility,” she continues.

Records exist for the export of thousands of red squirrel furs or skins from Ireland up until the 17th Century. After this, the exports ceased. “It is believed that hunting pressure combined with a dramatic reduction in forest cover led to a significant decline in red squirrel numbers and the species may even have died out,” Dr. O’Meara highlights.

A number of documented re-introductions of the species took place in the 19th Century into large estates. Some of the red squirrels were purchased from markets in London, where the selling and trading of squirrels was highly fashionable at the time. Such was the demand for red squirrels that not only were they brought into London from the nearby countryside, but they were also imported from continental Europe. According to Dr. O’Meara, “a small number of red squirrels were introduced into any one area, and it was their offspring that were subsequently moved to other sites”.

The collaboration involved researchers in Ireland and the United Kingdom, including NUI Galway, University College Dublin, University College Cork, Queen's University Belfast, University of Salford, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Irish Wildlife Trust, and citizen scientists.

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