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Red Squirrel Population

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30 pm, 25th October 2016

T1. Mr Durkan asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for her assessment of the threat facing the red squirrel population in Northern Ireland. (AQT 396/16-21)

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Minister, you were not waiting for that one, I tell you.

[Laughter.]

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I very much appreciate the question from the Member. I am aware that, when he was Minister of the Environment, he had a particular interest in red squirrels, along with hedgehogs, I believe.

I do not have the exact figure for the red squirrel population in Northern Ireland, but there are around 120,000 red squirrels right across the United Kingdom, and 75% of them are in Scotland. There are red squirrel hotspots in Northern Ireland, particularly around the Ring of Gullion. A number of conservation groups are specifically set up to look at the red squirrel, one of which is in the Minister's — sorry, the former Minister's — constituency. He may now have time to join that conservation group and give it a hand in its monitoring of the red squirrel. I pay tribute to the volunteers who work very hard to monitor and try to retain the population in Northern Ireland. Anyone who follows, as I do, the Twitter feed of the Red Squirrels United in Northern Ireland will be aware that the squirrel pox virus, which comes from the grey squirrel, is an issue in the Mournes area.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for that very comprehensive answer. Will she expand on that by telling us what her Department is doing to protect not only our red squirrels but other species at risk here?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I am, of course, very conscious of the 'State of Nature' report that was published very recently and the number of species around Northern Ireland that are under threat, particularly the red squirrel and the hedgehog. Groups such as the Ulster Wildlife Trust work very closely on these matters and are leading the red squirrel campaign. The trust receives funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and has a four-year programme for that project, which is about monitoring and surveying the red squirrel. The Member will also be aware that the Grassroots Challenge project was launched just a couple of weeks ago in the Long Gallery, and I was privileged to be at that. The project, which works alongside the Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster, the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme and special schools, aims to encourage young people, over the next five years, to become involved in the environment and look out for our endangered species in particular. There is good work going on in those organisations, and it is important that my Department works alongside them in order to support them where it can.