The main reason for stopping in Ballina, is that the place we are staying had a squirrel in its photograph. Hope springs eternal, as you can see. It is adjacent to the Belleek National Park, once a private estate which promises a treasure trove of wildlife including red squirrels, stoats, otters, pine martens, foxes, bunnies, hares and too many types of birds to count. As usual the lady, says that yes, there are squirrels, but they are hard to spot and best chances are early in the day, or late.
We have binoculars, nuts and high hopes. Undeterred by her comments, we set off for the loop woodland walk around 11 am.
The park has a history going back to the 1800s and is full of mature trees including oak, sycamore, willow, chestnut, beech,yew and lime. In 1831, Baronet Arthur Knox Gore built Belleek Manor (now a hotel) and during his ownership planted some two million trees. When he died in 1873, he was buried in the woodland and a fine 30 foot gothic monument still stands over his grave today. His faithful dog, Phizzie, is buried alongside with his own grave stone. The woodlands also showcase a lime kiln from that time, an ice house, a ring fort (which we could not find) and the famine wall – built to employ the local men during the famine. In 1898, Country Life magazine described it as an earthly paradise. Today, that description still holds. It’s very peaceful, very green and just beautiful. We spot many birds, including a few types of duck, a Herron and lots of robins and different types of tits. I also see a brilliant pale golden ladybird with too many spots to count. She’s fabulous.
They are also trying to repopulate endangered species here, the red squirrel and the mallard being two. In 2007, 15 red squirrels were relocated to the woodland – today they number around 50. Similarly, the original 12 ducks now number over 100. Two girls studied the squirrels as part of their PhD at the Galway University. Omg… studying squirrels for a PhD!!!!! Where do I sign up? Seriously. Where do I sign?
I take many happy snaps along the way, and it’s one of these stops for a picture that I glimpse my first squirrel. Scampering along the tree top, his little red coat, tufted ears and cream belly are unmistakable. I get a really good look at him before he scarpers off – Chris isn’t as lucky. He sees the movement, but not the squirrel. I make him stand in the spot to mark it, and take the shot I was after. I take a selfie too – to see if I look as happy as I feel. And I do. If I could bottle that feeling it would be my drug of choice.
Given that we were told that it would be most unlikely to spot one, and we were at this stage, in the middle of the day vs early or late, this is a huge bonus. But it’s a mere taste of what’s yet to come.
We walk on a little further and come to a clearing with beautiful old trees. One has 5 bird boxes attached to it, and under these is a lidded box feeder containing some raw peanuts. Someone also has cubed apples very recently too, and tucked them into the folds of the tree bark. Now, I’d like to think I am no-ones fool, whilst there might not be a squirrel here right now, I know my nuts will make their way into little furry tummies if left here, so I happily tuck my almonds into the tree truck and into the feeder and get reluctantly dragged away.
As we turn back…Chris spots our SECOND SQUIRREL. He’s sitting in the fork of another tree nearby that has no nesting boxes, but has a feeder. We get the binoculars out for a good look. This one’s much smaller than mine – a spring baby, I’m sure. He’s eating an apple cube. And oh boy, is he cute. He’s perfect really. He’s high up and hasn’t spotted us yet – we stand perfectly still and take turns spying on him with the binoculars. And eventually he moves. Up, across and then down. He’s. Coming. Down. He’s coming
He squirrels down the truck and all of a sudden he spots us, freezes for a moment, and then starts the most magnificent display of territorial behaviour I’ve ever seen, even in a documentary. We get chittering, we get scolding, we get chirruping and we get oh such much tail wagging and flicking. He comes at us from all angles – down the trunk face down, on a branch sideways, looking straight at us, and then peaking at us from the safety of the dark side of the trunk. He’s not still in any position for more than a few moments. Thank god I have the wherewithal to turn the video in my phone on. I’m on full zoom, so it’s grainy and shaky… but I get it. I get it all. It’s too far to get the sound, but I get the full display.
Eventually, he decides we are no threat, and comes down for a treat from the feeder. The little pet. He perches on the feeder, lifts the lid, and helps himself. I’m beside myself and can barely breathe. He squirrels back up the tree with his treat and I go in for a closer look.
This feeder has apple cubes, and like the other tree, apple cubes are tucked into the folds of the tree trunk. I now know what to do with the rest of my nuts – into the feeder they go. And I step back and wait.
AND HE COMES DOWN AGAIN. He looks, chittering a little, then goes straight to the feeder, lifts the lid, and takes his treats. Little darling pet – he eating my almonds. My joy knows bounds. And I get it all on a tape to enjoy later (forever). Even Chris agrees – best wild squirrel sighting….EVER!!!!! We’re both delighted and feel so lucky to have seen that display. Even David Attenborough would have been impressed by that display.
We finish the rest of our walk, heads upward searching though the tree tops and see all of the afore mentioned sights. No more squirrels though.
Once back to the car, we have lunch and marvel over our luck, then hit the road again, though county Mayo into county Sligo.
We finish the day near the coast in the tiny town of Rossbeg. We don’t stop until well after six, when we would have happily stopped at four – there’s just nowhere to stop despite going through some 6 towns in those last two hours.
Such a good day. Little red squirrels. Wild and flourishing. How I love them, and how grateful I am for the people who care for them and their future. I wish I could hold one, just to feel how soft they are. And perhaps to touch the little ears and the creamy little belly.
And maybe give him a treat. Or two. And kiss that little head. Squirrel bliss.