Q&A with Jen Quinlan

| Interviews, Red Squirrel Awareness Week

Jen Quinlan is now the Red Squirrel Species Monitor for the UK, based at the Welsh Mountain Zoo in Colwyn Bay. This is where she started volunteering in 2009, alongside her studies in Zoo Animal Management at the University of Wales. Progressing from Animal Keeper, she branched out into horticulture and later attained a Diploma in the Management of Zoo & Aquarium Animals. With a long-standing passion for conservation, and for Red Squirrels in particular, since provides expertise and guidance on Captive Red Squirrel Management at the national level. She hopes that this work will mean we see more Red Squirrels in back gardens across the country.

When did you first take an interest in wildlife conservation and can you tell us a bit about your role looking after Red Squirrels at Welsh Mountain Zoo?

I first became interested in conservation, and in particular that of Red Squirrels, when I was taken to visit the Red Squirrel Nature Reserve in Formby at a very young age. Being able to feed and get close to these animals as a child really instilled a passion for them within me, so when I was later offered the chance to be involved with the conservation of this species, I jumped at the chance.

My role as Species Monitor is to maintain the database of captive squirrels held around the UK. This is important for tracking the genetics of breeding pairs and preventing inbreeding within the population. I also make recommendations for moving the kittens born each year to new homes, which includes recommending which ones are to be released into the wild via government approved projects. In addition, I act as a point of contact for animal collection seeking advice on keeping Red Squirrels in captivity, and for those wanting to become a part of the national breeding program.

What was it like to have seen the re-establishing Red Squirrels on the island of Anglesey, and how successful has reintroduction this been?  

Having only recently taken over as the Species Monitor for Red Squirrels, I had no direct involvement in the Anglesey reintroduction. However, I know this reintroduction has been a huge success. It has managed to create a self-sustaining population of squirrels on the island and squirrels are now even being spotted in mainland North Wales as the population has expanded and individuals have crossed the Menai Strait. The success of this project has allowed me to use it as a comparative model for the ongoing reintroduction in Clocaenog Forest, North Wales. It is my hope that this next project will be just as successful as Anglesey and go towards securing a permanent future population of Red Squirrels in North Wales.

With UK Red Squirrel captive-bred stocks at critically low levels, how important is captive breeding to ensuring there are enough red squirrels to introduce into the wild? 

Captive breeding plays an essential part in the conservation of Red Squirrels. Kittens born in captivity will either be moved on to new collections to form new breeding pairs and continue contributing to the breeding program in the future, or they will replace older squirrels that may have died during the season. Once these requirements of the breeding program have been met, the remaining young will then go on to be released into the wild. It is therefore extremely important that the captive breeding stock are managed and cared for to the highest degree, to ensure a healthy and viable breeding population that will continue to produce young each year.

What would you say are the most important benefits of keeping Red Squirrels in captivity for species conservation?

There are a number of important benefits to keeping Red Squirrels in captivity. Not only does the breeding program ensure there are young available for release to bolster the wild population, but it also plays an essential role in helping educate the general public local to release sites on the plight of this native species. Without such understanding, serious problems can arise. Having a captive population means people who may never have seen a Red Squirrel in the wild can come to visit and engage with the animals, which plays a critical part in encouraging more people to get involved with the conservation of the species.

What can be done to increase breeding populations and how is the breeding process managed in captivity? 

It is important to maintain a large captive population to prevent inbreeding and to ensure a healthy genetic viability, so females will produce young that will continue to breed. Encouraging new reputable animal collections to include Red Squirrels in their displays will of course also help to increase this breeding population, as well as providing further education to a wider population.

In order to breed, Red Squirrels require little to no human involvement. Behavioural changes such as chasing and nest building can be observed by keepers, and give important insight into when to provide additional dray material or increase food amounts. Motion activated cameras can also be placed in enclosures so the health of the kittens can be observed without disturbing them. Once the kittens have become independent and of an age they would naturally move off from the parents, they are separated into enclosures of their own to await either relocation to a new collection or release to the wild.

Can you tell us a bit more about the ‘Adopt a Squirrel’ scheme at the Welsh Mountain Zoo?  

The Welsh Mountain Zoo’s ‘Adopt an Animal’ scheme benefits both the animal and the individual, and includes our Red Squirrels. The money provided in order to adopt helps offer financial support for the continued conservation of this species, as well as the money needed to care for the animal in captivity. The person that adopts the squirrel is given a zoo welcome pack, complementary entry tickets and has the opportunity to meet the keeper to learn more about what is involved in the care and conservation of the animal.

Given the Red Squirrel Project is the Welsh Mountain Zoo’s longest running conservation project focused on a single species, what are your hopes for the project in the future?  

My hopes for the future are to continue pushing the project further so we can become a leading institute in the husbandry of this wonderful species. We hope to continue providing expertise and support to those already involved with or wanting to become a part of conservation process, so that one day there will be more Red Squirrels in back gardens across our country.

How can people get involved in the zoo’s Red Squirrel work? 

There are a number of ways in which someone can get involved, both directly or indirectly. Providing financial support to the zoo through donations or via the adoption scheme allows people to get involved without giving up any personal time. Alternatively, volunteering at the zoo helps to aid with the continual care of the captive animals. A number of local squirrel conservation groups are also available to join which play an really important part in helping monitor the health and number of wild populations.

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