Rare pine marten 'photo-bombs' red squirrel survey
Scientists behind a red squirrel monitoring project in County Fermanagh have been surprised after finding an even more elusive mammal has been 'photo-bombing' their research.
Pine martens have been spotted by cameras in the Fermanagh woodlands, more than red or grey squirrels.
The animal is considered to be Ireland's rarest native mammal.
The results have forced researchers to rethink and they will now include pine martens in the survey.
They are now recruiting volunteers to take the project forward and get a better picture of both the red squirrel and pine marten populations in Northern Ireland.
The Fermanagh Citizen Science Red Squirrel Project originally set up cameras in 70 woodlands across the county.
The aim of the project was to monitor the Fermanagh red squirrel population.
The species was once common in Ireland but has been battling for survival ever since the grey squirrel was introduced from North America over 100 years ago.
Fermanagh and the Glens of Antrim remain the only red squirrel strongholds in Northern Ireland.
The project collected thousands of photos, but researchers were amazed to find that pine martens had been spotted more than their intended target.
Close to 40 per cent of the woodlands examined contained pine martens, compared to 20 per cent containing red squirrels and three per cent containing grey squirrels.
Dr David Tosh from Queen's University Belfast, said they had been trying to gain more information on the distribution of red and grey squirrels in County Fermanagh.
"We decided to use volunteers from the Fermanagh Red Squirrel Group and the National Trust to stick up camera traps in the forest and basically use that as a template for these red animals across the rest of Northern Ireland," he said.
"But we found more pine martens than we did red squirrels, which was a very pleasant surprise because they are also a protected and endangered species as well.
"We found pine martens in one in every three forests we surveyed while we only found red squirrels in every one in five.
"That doesn't mean that red squirrels are in decline, it's just that we found more pine martens than we did red squirrels, which is no bad thing in itself.
"They are very photogenic little creatures, they are not shy. They enjoy getting their photo taken."