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Endangered red squirrels brought back from the brink in Madrid’s Retiro Park
HYDE Park and Central Park are replete with them, and Madrid’s Retiro Park was overrun with them 20 years ago – but now, trying to catch sight of them in the latter is about as easy as witnessing the Aurora Borealis from the Pyrénées.
Squirrels are no longer an endangered species in the green lung of Spain’s largest city – they’ve disappeared altogether.
Well, about five are believed to be living in the Retiro, but compared with their heyday at the end of the last century, the giant squirrel city back then has shrunk to a tiny village.
The Friends of the Retiro Association says around 145 were released into the park in the late 1990s and they not only thrived, finding abundant sources of food, but bred non-stop, multiplying their population several times over within months.
But cats, dogs and magpies roaming the huge urban garden have not turned out to be squirrels’ ideal neighbours: they chase them, scare them off and even kill them.
So, with the help of the Friends of the Retiro, Madrid city council is now working on reintroducing squirrels to the park.
“Not too many, though”
“The idea is to increase their population as far as we can; it’s a difficult task, though, because there are so many problems for them in the Retiro,” explains the local authority’s head of biodiversity, Santiago Soria.
“It wouldn’t be ideal for the park to become overpopulated with them as it was before, but it’d be good to have a few more than there are now.”
Reproduction processes have to be carefully controlled for all animals in a reduced space to avoid ‘damaging the food chain’ or creating ‘other environmental disturbance’, Soria says.
To this end, a gradual release of limited numbers of the species will be carried out over the next few months or years – a plan that will start with breeding them in captivity.
The Casa de Campo red squirrel-breeding centre was key in repopulating the park two decades or so back, but has since fallen into disuse.
An earlier plan to reintroduce these animals to the Retiro, back in 2008, saw a small number being bred at the Casa de Campo and five of them released, although certain councillors insisted this would not be enough to revive the red squirrel community.
It turns out they were right: as fast as they were breeding once in liberty, the squirrels were being killed or scared off.
Soria is not clear how many will be bred and released this time around, but says more stringent steps will be taken to protect them once they are in the ‘wild’ – safe havens set up, such as man-made nests, along with deliberately-placed food sources during leaner seasons, and possible restrictions on dogs being walked near squirrel habitats.
Friends of the Retiro spokesman Ignacio Bazarra says the association is delighted to hear about the city council’s repopulation plan.
“We’ve been noticing for years how there are fewer and fewer of them,” he reveals.
“At most, there are maybe half a dozen near the turtle fountain.
“Lots of residents are concerned about the scarcity of the squirrel population – on guided tours of the park, people always ask where they can see squirrels.”
Squirrels are a nomadic species, hard to spot at the best of times, and only live around five years at most, meaning any reproduction programme would have to be ongoing and focused on specific areas of the park.
Other squirrel habitats
Luckily, small numbers of squirrels can still be found in other parts of the city and wider region – in the Sabatini Gardens near the Royal Palace, the El Capricho park in Alameda de Osuna, the Dehesa de la Villa, the El Pardo mountain and the park in Manzanares – where they ‘wander in and out with no qualms’, Bazarra reveals.
El Retiro continues to be the focal point for squirrel-releasing projects, however, since their population in the park has historically been the largest of all these areas.
Perhaps in another year or two, visitors to Madrid who join guided tours of the park and ask where they can spot red squirrels will be shown directly to their habitats and be able to take home a stack of crisply-clear photographs.
Until then, the Friends of the Retiro Association has supplied the above photograph, so future visitors will be able to recognise the park’s new inhabitants if – or, maybe, when – they get to see them in the flesh.
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