Emma Roberts and Colin Lawton, NUI Galway

This MSc project aims to investigate the role of ecological corridors and habitat fragmentation in the dispersal of red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) through the urban environment of Galway city. We are looking at the distribution of red squirrels in the city and investigating their population dynamics in Galway city parks and woods.

Following a severe decline, Ireland’s native red squirrel population has recovered considerably in recent years. The status of the species changed from “Near Threatened”, in 2009, to “Least Concern” on Ireland’s 2019 Red List for Mammals. This is thanks to conservation efforts throughout the island of Ireland and the regional decline of the invasive grey squirrel.  Our knowledge of the red squirrel recovery has been informed by national squirrel surveys conducted by NUI Galway, the latest taking place in 2019.

Galway city centre is an urban environment with a number of small, fragmented woodlands and parks, some of which have limited resources and are relatively isolated. The River Corrib and Galway city’s extensive road system act as ecological barriers to small mammal movement. Red squirrel sightings submitted to the “2019 All Ireland Squirrel and Pine Marten Survey” have been reported in wooded areas such as Merlin Woods and Menlo village, which lie to the east and north of Galway city respectively. One-off sightings have also been reported in Dangan, located to the west of the River Corrib, and Terryland Forest Park located near the city centre. Sightings suggest that Terryland and Dangan woods are functioning as ecological corridors for dispersing individuals.

Habitat fragmentation refers to when a continuous habitat is divided into smaller patches of different habitats by way of natural or man-made barriers. Within these habitat fragments, wildlife can become isolated. This occurs if they do not have a sufficient pathway through which they can move between habitat patches. These ecological corridors are vital to protecting potentially vulnerable species. In the long term, isolation can lead to a loss in genetic diversity and decrease the isolated population’s chance of survival.

In our research on urban red squirrel population dynamics Galway, we can find out more about the city’s wildlife and the importance of green spaces in protecting our native animals. The information will allow us to model movement and dispersal through our city parks and will help to determine the feasibility of population expansion into other forested areas to the west of the city. Ultimately this will help us to plan for the future management of red squirrels and other wildlife species in Galway.

At approximately 11%, Ireland has one of the lowest percentages of forest cover in all of Europe. With an increase in urban areas, it is necessary that we investigate the suitability of urban environments in providing habitat for and facilitating movement of wildlife.  Protecting our green areas and maintaining connectivity between them is crucial for the future prospects of our native mammals, birds and other animals.

More information on the project can be found at our Facebook page. If you see a squirrel in Galway city, please let us know (galwaysquirrelproject@gmail.com).

Red squirrel in Merlin Woods, Galway. Photo by Colin Stanley

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