Q&A with Katy Bell

| Interviews, Red Squirrel Awareness Week

Katy Bell is Senior Conservation Officer at Ulster Wildlife managing their species-focused conservation projects for Red Squirrels and Barn Owls. With experience in ecology, habitat management, and biodiversity monitoring, Katie has led Conservation Action Plans and has consistently worked to protect endangered species. A keen naturalist, she’s has been a research assistant for a number of universities and a ranger in the Scottish Highlands leading wildlife tours and providing environmental education. Katie’s career has seen her work extensively on conservation projects to restore nature both in Northern Ireland and beyond.

 Can you tell us a bit about your interest in Red Squirrel conservation? 

Red Squirrels are an iconic species and have suffered drastic declines in the past. Having never seen anything but greys during my childhood in Northern Ireland it is amazing to be part of Red Squirrel recovery and to now be able to watch them close to my house is amazing. They are a pleasure to watch and I never get bored of seeing one. I am passionate about all wildlife and it is important to protect every part of our biodiversity to allow it to thrive and recover.

What does your work at Ulster Wildlife on habitat management involve? How do you practically go about expanding the Red Squirrels strongholds? 

Ulster Wildlife has 19 nature reserves across Northern Ireland and Red Squirrels are present on a number of these. These woodlands are carefully managed so red squirrels can thrive. We also consult on any woodland or forestry developments to ensure Red Squirrels are taken into consideration. We are currently working towards developing a Nature Recovery Network for Red Squirrels in Northern Ireland as part of our Red Squirrel Strategy.

 What are the main Red Squirrel conservation successes Ulster Wildlife has had over the last few years?

Ulster Wildlife was part of Red Squirrel United, a LIFE and NLHF funded partnership project, which ran from 2016-2019. This project was a huge success and delivered a range of outcomes such as; the creation of 5 new volunteer squirrel groups, the carrying out of the largest citizen science survey of Red Squirrels in Northern Ireland, and raised awareness of Red Squirrel conservation with the general public. It also supported research projects and provided 20 training courses for grey squirrel control. With continued support from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency we are carrying out more training, supporting volunteer groups and monitoring populations of red and grey squirrels across the country.

How do local Red Squirrel groups participate in squirrel conservation across Ulster’s counties? And how important are volunteers to Ulster Wildlife’s work? 

There are 10 volunteer squirrel groups in Northern Ireland and they all carry out invaluable work. Ulster Wildlife does not have the people power to cover the whole country and so these dedicated groups are able to work in their local areas to raise awareness, monitor Red Squirrel strongholds and undertake grey squirrel management. We are able to get a better picture of any changes in local populations by these volunteers on the ground.

What role has building partnerships with other players in Red Squirrel conservation had?

Partnership working is vital in conservation and this was evident by the success of the Red Squirrel United project. Knowledge sharing is a huge part of this and we do this through the NI Squirrel Forum and also being a part of the UK Squirrel Accord. We also work with volunteer groups and universities to enhance our knowledge. All of this allows us to achieve more strategic grey squirrel control and better conservation outcomes for Red Squirrels.

Having helped monitor squirrel populations across the area, are you noticing any new trends emerging?

In Northern Ireland the Red Squirrel story is now a positive one. We are seeing red squirrels in areas where they did not used to be present and a population increase across the country. This is incredible after such a drastic decline. This can be put down to conservation efforts and also the spread of pine martens. County Fermanagh is now grey squirrel free with a healthy population of both red squirrels and pine martens. We are still faced with high numbers of grey squirrels in urban areas and this needs to be addressed.

How do you think funding and the future is looking for Red Squirrels in the Ulster area?

Hopefully red squirrels will continue to spread across Northern Ireland. We hope that funding will continue to be able to support our red squirrel conservation work. Without funding we would have limited capacity to monitor populations and support habitat creation. We are very grateful for all of funding received up until now; without which we would not be able to carry out our vital work.

What are the best ways people can help Red Squirrel projects across Ulster?

There are many ways to help red squirrels in NI. You can become a member of Ulster Wildlife to support our work or you can donate to the project. You can join a local red squirrel group or start one of your own. We encourage you to report sightings of red squirrel, grey squirrel and pine marten to CEDaR. Or you can raise awareness of red squirrel conservation in your local area.

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