The Red Squirrel is one of our most beautiful and beloved native woodland animals. There is nothing more exciting than the flash of red bushy tail and the glimpse of a pair of tufty ears whilst out walking. Despite being present for over 10,000 years, their numbers have declined dramatically due to loss of habitat and disease spread by the invasive grey squirrel.

Belfast Zoo has always been committed to working with endangered exotic species from all around the world, but we are equally passionate about protecting our own native species.

In 2013 Belfast Zoo began its conservation breeding programme of the Red Squirrel and to date 36 have successfully been released into the wild. The conservation program is part of an ongoing effort between Belfast Zoo, the National Trust, Ulster Wildlife, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and the Heart of Down Red Squirrel Group to secure the long-term future of this increasingly rare mammal.

Three Red Squirrels were released into Carnfunnock park earlier this year. Two squirrels were sent on the 26th of April and the third was sent on the 4th of May 2024. Kittens can only be released when they are optimum age and weight. Belfast Zoo still retains a breeding pair in the nook. The squirrels will be managed by Ballygally & District Biodiversity Group, who have been working tirelessly for the past five years to raise awareness around the issues facing reds and have been an active partner in the special breeding program led by Belfast Zoo.

Squirrel 1

Zoo manager, Alyn Cairns, said ““Belfast Zoo first became home to red squirrels in 2012 when three animals arrived from the Glens of Antrim.  The original aim of red squirrel nook was predominantly education and interaction.  However, the hope was that the squirrels would be content in the nook to breed and release arrangements were developed by Belfast Zoo, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and the Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum (NISF). It is extremely encouraging for Northern Ireland red squirrel populations, that since the inception of the project, Belfast Zoo born squirrels have supported existing populations in Northern Ireland but have also been vital in developing new habitats and populations.  Our squirrels have been released to sites across Northern Ireland including Glenarm Estate, Ballykinler Estate, Silent Valley Mountain Park, Dunnywater and Carnfunnock park.”

When the squirrels are brought to their new homes, they are initially housed in a soft release pen to allow them to adapt to their new surroundings. They are then later released into the woodlands that have been made safe for them to thrive and flourish in. Many release locations also have feeders and camera trails so that their progress can be monitored. In the 2020 a report conducted by Ulster Wildlife said there are now red squirrels in every county in Ireland! This is a huge achievement and we at Belfast Zoo are very proud to have played a part in this.

Squirrel 2

This project would not have been possible without the work and support of organizations such as Mourne Heritage Trust, The Forest Service, NI Water, NI Environment Agency, Ballygally & District Biodiversity Group, St Francis’ Primary School Lurgan, Red Squirrel Group-Ulster Wildlife, Heart of Down Red Squirrel Group, Northern Ireland Squirrel Forum.

This has been a good news story for us, and we hope it will continue to increase the population of these adorable animals who bring so much to the biodiversity of our island.

If you would like to take part in the conservation of the Red Squirrel, please contact Ulster Wildlife on 02890 454094 or email