Citizen scientists called to play their part in Ireland’s red squirrel revival

1 Apr 2022

Red squirrel. Image: Karl O'Toole

Researchers from NUI Galway are looking for people to submit images of red and grey squirrels they find in urban areas to the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s website.

A team at NUI Galway is leading a survey-based research project that aims to get the public involved in citizen science and urban wildlife conservation.

Researchers are asking the public to record sightings of red and grey squirrels in cities, towns and urban parks as part of a bid to revive the native red squirrel population in Ireland.

Red squirrels are currently being displaced by the larger, invasive grey squirrels. Grey squirrels were introduced to Ireland in 1911 and they have made survival increasingly difficult for red squirrels.

Not only do they compete for food and spread diseases, grey squirrels also seem to thrive and seek refuge in urban areas, according to recent studies. Some surveys carried out since 2007 have shown that the red squirrel population may be recovering, however.

NUI Galway researchers are still concerned that reports of grey squirrels thriving in urban areas may hinder red squirrels. They have launched the Urban Squirrel Survey to get the public’s help in tracking the behaviour of both types of creature.

The survey will run throughout the year, and is being carried out by PhD student Emma Roberts and Dr Colin Lawton, lecturer in wildlife ecology and conservation biology in NUI Galway’s School of Natural Sciences.

Lawton said they would “rely on the help of the public, our citizen scientists, to provide us with information from their local parks and gardens”.

“Previously, surveys have been looking for squirrel records in all areas of Ireland, but this year we are focusing on urban areas, to highlight the increasing importance of these habitats to our wildlife and to see if they will remain a stronghold of the invasive grey squirrel,” he added.

Grey squirrel with trees and foliage in the background.

Grey squirrel. Image: Gillian Day

According to Roberts, “With the spread of urbanisation, parks and urban green spaces are becoming important habitats for squirrels. By understanding where both species occur in urban areas, we can plan conservation actions to protect our native red squirrel.

“Red squirrels need a woodland to live in, so it can be difficult for an urban area to accommodate these animals. By researching their distribution in urban areas across Ireland, we can investigate the likelihood of their continued survival in certain areas and reestablishment in others.”

The researchers are working with the Heritage Council’s National Biodiversity Data Centre. This resource offers an online portal for citizens to record biodiversity data in Ireland. It has previously been involved in bee conservation projects and profiling Irish natural habitats.

The squirrel research is primarily focused on urban areas in Galway, Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Derry, Limerick and Waterford.

For instructions on how to record sightings of squirrels for the project, see the National Biodiversity Data Centre’s website.

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.