Dalkey Tidy
Brent GoosePainted Lady
Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
February 2010 - Michael Ryan

We’d seen an item on the BBC Countryfile programme on TV about Tollymore Forest Park, mixed woodland of over 630 hectares in Co. Down. At one stage their population of Red Squirrels was estimated to be between 5 and 10 individual animals but through a combination of trapping and removing Grey Squirrels and by providing supplementary food for the red squirrels they have increased the red’s numbers to over 100 animals. We went north in November planning a few days around the Mourne Mountains. We went straight to Tollymore to get a few hours there before dusk. You enter the park through a very impressive arched gateway then up a driveway lined by stately cedar trees of great girth and age.
The park falls down to a river that cuts through a steep sided ravine with paths either side with fenced viewing areas at some of the most spectacular points. There are a number of bridges crossing the river some with ornate gothic towers at their corners and throughout the park there are buildings, grottos and caves created in very imaginative style by 18th century designer Thomas Wright giving the whole place a magical quality. There’s a very old arboretum as well with a great diversity of conifers, exotics and native trees. Oaks from Tollymore were used in the interior furniture of the Titanic. We met a ranger who’d been driving his van around the forest refilling the squirrel feeders. He told us where we might stake out one of the feeders and possibly see a red. We found a feeder positioned a few feet up a very old sprawling yew tree but it remained untouched while we watched.

Red Squirrel in feeding cage

Red Squirrel feeding inside the specially  designed feeder cage at Tollymore Forest  Park. Note the entrance hole, small enough to  stop adult Greys getting in, with the metal  plate around it to stop the greys widening it by  biting through it. Photograph by Janette Adams
We returned to the river walk then saw The Hermitage.  This is a folly type cluster of steps leading down to little stone chambers perched on the edge of the gorge constructed out of the local rock and blending in beautifully and very naturally. Further down we saw one red squirrel on a large oak tree perched on the ravine edge. We returned to the forest a few days afterwards on a lovely autumnal morning and set off on a different route. We’d walked a few miles and realized the track we were on seemed to be going out of the forest so turned around and crossed the river. A very cheerful lady who we’d met earlier, greeted us again as she passed us with her dog. We reckoned she knew where she was going so followed her up a rising path into the woods, past a house and garden surrounded by trees but then she stopped and came back down the path. We asked her for directions and she told us this track led out to a road. She was advising us which path was most scenic to walk along when, perhaps noticing our binoculars, she commented there were red squirrels in the forest. We told her that was one reason we were there and she then told us she was involved in the Squirrel Action Group. The house we’d just passed was in fact hers and she asked us did we want to come in to her garden where we might see some red squirrels feeding. I couldn’t believe our luck but kept in mind that this was real life, not TV, and there was no guarantee we’d actually see any squirrels. I needn’t have worried.
My companion almost instantly saw a red which disappeared on our approach but then more red squirrels started appearing, making their way down through the trees and hopping from fence post to fence post towards the food, a mixture of maize, hazel nuts and peanuts. The squirrel group had developed a wire cage which had an entry hole wide enough that reds could get through but the bigger adult greys couldn’t. The greys had been eating through the metal plate surrounding the hole to widen it on earlier models of the cages so the group had developed a galvanised plate for the cage which had proven resilient to the greys efforts. Janette, the house owner, told us that sometimes when she’s refilling the feeders (always wearing surgical gloves to prevent infection) she would turn around to find a young red squirrel sitting on the ground behind her waiting trustingly for its food. While we were there five individual red squirrels came in to the garden although apparently this was quite a low number since there was still lots of natural food around and in the past she’d had up to 18 red squirrels at one time. She also leaves out cuttlefish bones, like you’d see in bird cages which are to provide calcium for the squirrels’ diet. We couldn’t have wished for a more fortuitous meeting and when we left to wander back through the trees, spectacular in their autumn colours the forest seemed to have become even more magical. I’d forgotten my camera which is probably as well since I’d have spent hours trying, and probably failing, to capture the natural beauty of the place but there’s a
website http://www.niphotos.com/tollymoreforest/h399f1182 / slideshow that has some wonderful photos of the forest.