Conservation strategies in the UK and Ireland that favour non-native conifer plantations are likely to negatively impact red squirrels, according to new research.

A study led by Queen’s University Belfast and the University of St Andrew’s in Scotland has shown that native predators in native woodland are key to the survival of the threatened species.

Researchers said that the finding is in contrast to existing conservation strategies which promote non-native conifer forestry plantations as a nature based solution for tackling climate change and the biodiversity crisis.

The UK and Ireland has some of the lowest forest cover in Europe and over 75% of it is made up of non-native timber plantations.

Red Squirrels

The study involving Ulster Wildlife and citizen scientists placed camera traps at 700 sites across Northern Ireland over a five-year period and focused on red squirrels, grey squirrels and pine martens.

Following its protection in the 1970s and 1980s, the pine marten, which is part of the weasel family, has made an "astounding recovery".

Pine Marten Picture: Queen's University Belfast

Researchers said this native predator increases the red squirrel population especially in native broadleaf woodlands, as the pine marten preys on the invasive grey squirrel, which has replaced the red squirrel throughout much of Ireland and Britain.

However, the study found that this effect is reversed in large non-native conifer plantations as grey squirrels do not thrive in these habitats; as a result the pine marten preys on the red squirrel.

“Restoration of native predators is a critical conservation tool to combat the on-going biodiversity crisis, but this must be in conjunction with maintenance and protection of natural, structurally complex habitats," Dr. Joshua P. Twining, lead author from Queen’s University Belfast, said.

"This has global implications given the on-going recovery of predators in certain locations such as mainland Europe.

"It also shows that the current national red squirrel conservation strategies that favor non-native confer plantations are likely to have the opposite impact to what is intended.

Timber plantations are often promoted as being beneficial to red squirrel conservation, but our results show that they will have a detrimental effect on the species in the future.

“This work shows that we need to develop an alternative national conservation strategy for the red squirrel, focused on planting native woodlands alongside continued pine marten recovery," Twining concluded.