Northern Ireland news

Lurgan primary school helping save the red squirrel

St Francis' Primary School's red squirrel sanctuary. Picture by Mal McCann

PRIMARY school pupils are helping to save the red squirrel from extinction through a new conservation project.

St Francis' primary in Lurgan is the north's first school to host squirrels as part of a Belfast Zoo scheme.

Three new residents are housed safely in a large enclosure.

The red squirrel in Ireland is in danger. The population has declined due to loss of habitat and competition from the larger, invasive grey squirrel.

In the last 50 years, it has almost completely disappeared from most of Britain and Northern Ireland.

St Francis' Primary School's red squirrel sanctuary. Picture by Mal McCann

The population has declined from around 3.5 million to just 140,000, with fewer than 40,000 estimated to be left in Ireland.

Ulster Wildlife has warned that without conservation management, the species could become extinct within a generation.

Across the north, there are 13 red squirrel volunteer groups and two project teams who work with statutory agencies and land owners to secure the future of the animals.

Belfast Zoo is among those that plays an active role with a captive breeding programme.

St Francis' Primary School's red squirrel sanctuary. Picture by Mal McCann

It first became home to red squirrels in 2012 when three arrived at its 'red squirrel nook' from the Glens of Antrim.

St Francis' already has allotments and woodland as part of an environmental hub.

Teacher Dwyer Colman said the red squirrel project started with a past pupil asking, "Why can't we keep monkeys in our woodland?"

Mr Coleman, who is a past winner of 'Eco-Teacher of the Year', said this started a debate about what native species actually lived in the school grounds and how the woodland could help wildlife thrive.

"We researched and came up with an idea to bring red squirrels into the school grounds," Mr Coleman said.

"Through two years of research, building up action plans, seeking advice and eventually establishing links with other groups, we got speaking to Belfast Zoo, who have been breeding red squirrels.

"We agreed on creating a partnership whereby our school would keep and breed red squirrels in collaboration with the zoo, and Daera (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) would oversee release back into existing colonies across Northern Ireland."

Mr Coleman said the project allowed the school to get involved in real conservation of a priority species, giving children and the community access to observe and learn about red squirrels.

"The project also allows us to showcase the amazing diversity of animals that call our school grounds home," he added.

St Francis' Primary School in Lurgan teacher Dwyer Coleman at the red squirrel sanctuary at the school. Picture by Mal McCann

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