Predatory pine martens 'are helping the red squirrel population to recover'
UNDER-THREAT red squirrels are benefitting from an unlikely ally - the predatory pine marten, according to new research.
Native red squirrels have been threatened by the spread of non-native greys who out-compete reds for food and places to live and transmit a deadly disease which kills reds.
Reds now only exist in pockets including the Glens of Antrim and the Mourne Mountains.
However, research has found that red squirrels are being helped by one of their predators - the pine marten.
Researchers at Queens University, Belfast, and National Museums Northern Ireland found that the presence of pine martens increases the chances of red squirrels inhabiting an area and also reduces the likelihood of visits from grey squirrels.
The study used data from 332 sites across the north, including inner city Belfast, the Mournes, the Glens of Antrim and the Ring of Gullion.
Researcher Joshua Twining will today tell the British Ecological Society, which is holding its annual meeting in Belfast, that "the red squirrels 'positive response' is likely due to grey squirrel disappearance rather than red squirrels and pine martens working together".
Pine martens eat reds and greys. But reds have evolved alongside pine martens over millennia, making them able to coexist.
The pine marten population dropped in recent decades, partly due to the loss of their preferred forest habitat. Today the species is recovering, but researchers said the presence of pine martens alone is not enough to help red squirrels recover.
"The ability of the pine marten to control the grey squirrel and help red squirrel recovery in Ireland and Britain is limited by three things; its ongoing recovery, the lack of forest cover on the island and the presence of urban areas," Mr Twining said.
Researchers said grey squirrels will continue to thrive in urban areas.
Although the red squirrel population is increasing in Northern Ireland, the researchers warned that "unless the issue of control within populated areas is addressed, we risk creating a situation where marten-savvy grey squirrels could recolonise the wider landscape in the future".