Returning red squirrels bred in captivity to their natural habitat is the aim of a Pounds 98,000 release programme being co-ordinated by the Zoological Society of Wales at Colwyn Bay.
Supervised by Richard Arnold of the University College of North Wales, Bangor's school of biological sciences, and monitored by the department's students, two or three of the zoo's red squirrels will be released into 16 hectares of a neighbouring forest next year.
These hectares, of mixed pine and deciduous forest, are already populated by grey squirrels. The project team must be familiar with their behaviour and feeding patterns before the reds can be released. Selected greys have been given collars that transmit radio signals so that the Bangor students tracking them by radio can discover where they forage.
This data is vital because when the reds are released they will have to be intensively supported. In habitats best suited to greys, such as deciduous forests, the greys feed far more aggressively than the smaller reds.
"To that end, we will also put transmitting collars on the reds and provide escape enclosures for them so that they will be able to return whenever they wish to safe areas where food and sleeping quarters will be provided," explained the zoo's director Nick Jackson. More of the zoo's 11 reds will be returned to the forest in 1996. Some will remain in captivity at Colwyn Bay, however, so that a breeding programme begun in 1989 can continue.
John Gurnell of the school of biological sciences at Queen Mary College, London, who is involved in this part of the project, said: "There are plans afoot to establish a national captive breeding programme for red squirrels involving numerous zoos and private collectors."