Red Squirrels of Prehen Woods: Under imminent threat from planners and developers?

During the 2005 Slugger live coverage of the Westminster elections, I overheard a fairly senior Sinn Fein representative being candid enough to admit that there were no votes in the Environment. That’s not to pick on that particular party any more than any of the others.

It’s a fact of life in Northern Irish electoral politics, and I suspect that Sinn Fein is not the worst offender. People need homes to live in and places to work. But one of most contentious issues has been the law concerning planning.

In Tuesday’s Derry Journal, Eammon McCann highlights a small campaign and its fight with the planners to save a small area of ancient woodland in Prehen (‘rare enough in Ireland’, according to the Department of the Environment). It’s also host to a small colony of Red Squirrels in an area which is slowly being colonised by Greys.

In Ireland the first Greys where released only in 1911 so that their migration is still limited and there are (unlike the south of England where Red Squirrels are almost entirely confined to offshore islands) still good numbers and a decent geographical spread. But there are already considerable efforts going into translocation programmes, ie taking a small number of donor Reds and establishing them in broadleafed woodlands where they are likely to thrive.

All of this and more has been made clear to the planning service, who nonetheless altered the Derry Area Plan and opened up a small but strategically dangerous (from the point of view of the ancient habitat of Prehen Wood) area of Green Belt for “a very small and exclusive development of magnificent detached family homes”.

What’s remarkable is not simply that the purpose of the development is to place housing, as it says in the brochure in an area surrounded by the ancient woodland, but that over a three year period the planning service refused to explain to the local campaign group just why they had taken this extraordinary step.

Even taking it to the Minister of the time, Arlene Foster, did not work. George McLaughlan’s account of that meeting is that it included members of the planning service who continued to block any further answers to his campaign’s questions about the nature and reasoning behind the decision.

According to McCann the new Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood, is taking a fresh look at the files. But it’s pretty hard to see why a local planning service (which oversight, rather than control from Derry City Council) would take risks with a habitat for a native Irish species, which, whilst not endangered as such, is nonetheless clearly under threat.

In the meantime, it seems that after all these years of tooing and very little froing, the preparations are now being made to go ahead and start work on the four “magnificent detached family homes” and the road connecting them to the outside world.

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  • Eamonn McCann

    There will be picket of the planning office in Foyle Street at 1.30 this afternoon to protest against the commercially-driven vandalism at Prehen.

    eamonn mccann

  • Brian Walker

    A role at last for the SDLP if Alex Attwood has the power and desire to do the right thing.

  • “a very small and exclusive development of magnificent detached family homes”.

    Can someone please provide the Planning Service Application reference number for this development?

  • Mick Fealty

    I can ask.

  • Mick Fealty

    One the scale of things this is not the biggest story, but it is a very telling one, not least because of the copious documenting in Eammon’s article, of the capacity of the planning service to listen to and take on board real community concerns.

  • JR

    The key to the Survival of the Red Squirrel in Ireland is the stability of the native Pine Martin Population. The Pine martin’s main prey is the Squirrel and they find the Larger greys easier to catch than the Red’s. This is the key reason Red Squirrel populations have recovered from near extinction arround the Rostrevor Forest.

    We Irish have historically been the worst in the world at protecting their ancient woodlands. We are equally hopeless at re-planting native trees. The bigest problem is tha forest’s here are seen by farmers and developers as a waste of land.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Mick, although Red Squirrels are native they actually were extinct in Ireland and re-introduced in the 19th C, ironically it is the Forestry Service love for confiers that has protected them a little better here than in England, as they are quite partial to pinecones rather than broadleaf forests.

    Saying all that they need protected and encouraged, however the wood itself is as important if not moreso than the Squirrels, I hope the woodland trust won’t mind me posting this discription from their website “Prehen Wood is one of Northern Ireland’s rare and irreplaceable ancient woodlands, dating back as far as 1600. Today’s wood is a remnant of the extensive woodland that once covered much of the east bank of the River Foyle, stretching as far as Strabane. It managed to withstand the siege of Derry in 1689 and the presence of American troops during the Second World War. At 7.5 hectares (18.5 acres) the remaining woodland is much reduced from its former size. That which remains, however, is a natural treasure trove, a place of great beauty – and all on the doorstep of the city of Londonderry.”

    As for the proposed development there is a website that comes up that looks quite like it, nothing impressive really.

  • JR

    A slight correction, The red squirrel may or may not have gone extinct they are not quite sure. There was certainly a re-introduction from England but it is likely there were reminant populations of Native reds here at the time.

    Secondly the red’s are very partial to broad leafed forests and un molested can exist in much higher densities in oak and hazel woods. However the combinatin of the pox virus and the fact that Greys will eat nuts and acorns before they are ripe means the greys pushed the reds out of the broad leafed woods. Thankfully as you say the reds are better at extracting pine nuts from the pine cones and so have a survival advantage in the connifer woodlands.

    Because of the pine Martins if you go for a walk in Rostrevor oak woods you are now more likely to see a red than a grey.

  • Mick Fealty

    All good, but it’s the issue of what’s be left unguarded and unwatched. Strangfird Lough any one?

  • JR


    I think by far the lowest hanging fruit on our environmental tree is our uplands. Anyone who has travelled in Scandinavia or Eastern Europe knows what our uplands should look like they should be covered in Oak, Ash, Hazel and Scots pine. There are billions of acres of upland in Northern Ireland from the ring of gullion, the Mournes, The antrim uplands, the Sperrins etc. which could be restored to their natural state. Carefully managed, in time, this could become a sustainable industry.

    Hardwood growth rates here are around 15 cubic meters per ha per year. In other words £500 per Ha per year could be harvested without affecting the forest. Not only is this more lucrative than sheep farming but you are left with forests which improve our air quality and provide habitats for many plants and animals rather than what is by comparison a windswept wasteland.

  • The squirrels of Prehen get a mention in this 2000 Planning Appeals Commission report where PAC finds in favour of the developer:

    Department: “The report on bat and red squirrel activity submitted on behalf of the appellant was forwarded to Environment and Heritage Service (Natural Heritage) who were content with the survey and advised that no evidence of either red squirrels or bat activity was noted on the site. However there is evidence of red squirrel activity in the Prehen area in general and therefore it is important to protect the local supply of feeding habitat. Therefore substantial new planting was recommended which would be favourable to red squirrels and also the retention of existing vegetation where possible. Environment and Heritage Service raised no objection in principle to this development.”

    Objectors: “The site forms part of the overall natural and ecological environment of Prehen, contributing to the necessary wildlife linkages which provide cover and food for a range of bird and animal life. Protected species such as red squirrel, bats and otters have been observed and there is evidence of badger movement in the general area. The survey was commissioned by the appellant and the consultants were not independent. The survey was over a period of just 1 hour and did not include anecdotal evidence. Locals often see squirrels crossing the road to visit the site. The findings of the survey submitted on behalf of the appellant were questioned as to whether the persons used were experts in this field. .. A series of larger and more significant wildlife refuges have been identified in and around Prehen. These each have particular characteristics but perhaps the greatest value is the collective importance they have for Prehen’s important population of the rare and threatened red squirrel. Recent building developments have eroded this biological resource and this proposal would further erode the ability of Prehen to retain this beautiful and much loved animal.”

    Commissioner: “A report submitted by a qualified Ecologist indicates that the site is not used by either bats or red squirrels as habitat and this evidence has not been refuted. The report (PAC 4) submitted by Mr R Sheppard on behalf of the objectors is vague and ambiguous. The site is located a significant distance from the Prehen Conservation Area and has no physical or visual linkage with it. .. While I have considered the impact of proposals on wildlife I have noted that the evidence submitted on behalf of the appellant indicating the site was not used by either bats or red squirrels as a habitat was not contradicted. While Mr Shepherd’s report indicates that it is quite possible that red squirrels may cross the road to feed in this area I have not been presented with convincing evidence that the site forms a significant habitat for these species. .. While I have noted that EHS did raise some concerns, they raised no objection to the proposed development. In such circumstances I have not been persuaded that the concerns about the impact on wildlife habitat should be an impediment to this proposal.”

    EHS was re-branded as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) in July 2008. Might there be a reluctance on the part of this and other government agencies to oppose the actions of developers? As a general point, objectors are unlikely to have the financial and other resources to oppose the actions of well financed and determined developers.

  • Mike the First

    On a tangentially related note, grey squirrels were introduced to Bangor’s Castle Park about 5 years ago. I don’t know what the logic behind this was, but it did surprise me – deliberately introducing an invasive species into parkland/woods they hadn’t been found in previously. They’re pretty well established now.

  • “the preparations are now being made to go ahead and start work on the four “magnificent detached family homes”

    “Is this it?

    On the approach to the site the four new home owners will share a private driveway into the secluded & gated development site. The site is accessed through the lower part of Prehen Woods which means the driveway in and the site itself will be lined or surrounded with mature Oak and Beech trees with an understory of Hazel and Holly. Stunning in the Summer time but surreal in Winter!

  • Following up from DR’s remark, I can confirm that when I was a boy there were woods on the hills above Strabane and there were lots of red squirrels. We used to trek up on sunny summer days to see them.

  • [contd] OOPS I’ll try the Prehenwoods link again.

  • The yokel

    2200 sq ft of stone clad lovelyness in a surreal setting -just the thing for the ruling elite -grade 4 and above civil servants, the only people here with the income and job security to get a mortgage on such a property, but then I’m just jealous.

    “ It’s a fact of life in Northern Irish electoral politics, and I suspect that Sinn Fein is not the worst offender. “
    Indeed Mick, I have heard good reports of SF councillors’ environmental credentials in Downpatrick, but in general environmental matters take a low priority. I think, like crime in a multi-story car park,this is wrong on so many levels.
    Take for example economics. The Mournes are a popular place for people from far and wide to enjoy the great outdoors and potentially a bringer of wealth to the area yet the facilities there are primitive and the locals resist the proposed national park with a vengeance.
    I mean Newcastle is just plain tacky.

    Developing local infrastructure and conserving the Mournes will bring wealth to the area.

    Another example would be proper mountain biking facilities in local forests. N. Antrim would be a amazing place for this, just look to Scotland to see how beneficial adventure sports and eco-tourism are to the local economy.

    I think one of the problems is we are stuck with a mind-numbingly dull and risk averse ruling elite and I was only joking about being jealous.

  • cynic2

    If they seem to be invisible how does anyone know what colour the squirrels are?

    Could they be British ‘secret squirrels’ and that’s why noone can find them?

  • cynic2

    “the only people here with the income and job security to get a mortgage on such a property”

    or a SF MLA on the average industrial wage?

  • The yokel

    I liked this – from a SF MLA. He is worth his salt if he can call them to account,

  • cynic2

    “He is worth his salt if he can call them to account,”

    yeah …almost as bad as robbing banks and smuggling laundered diesel

  • The yokel

    I think it is time to move on, don’t you?

  • Harry Flashman

    “2200 sq ft of stone clad lovelyness in a surreal setting -just the thing for the ruling elite -grade 4 and above civil servants, the only people here with the income and job security to get a mortgage on such a property, but then I’m just jealous.”

    My thoughts exactly, when I was back in Derry I knew of at least half a dozen people trying to offload expensive homes they’d bought in the boom and the mortgages for which they now couldn’t afford to pay.

    The only people who can afford that sort of house in Derry these days are those comfortable and nicely-off public sector workers.

  • The Raven

    Happy to take a yellow card for this, but please folks, do take every opportunity to destroy the little grey bastards wherever you get a chance. My own, quite legal countryside tally is up in the hundreds now.

    On a serious note, yet again, the attitude on this island to the environment is quite sick-inducing. And to think CAP reform is being opposed because of greening measures. “Sure, just build on it – I’m putting a barn there now so I bungalow-fuck it in five years”. Harrumph.

  • cynic2

    “I think it is time to move on, don’t you?”

    Yes but when a party seeks to exercise political leadership it also pays to remember the past and where they have come from – yellow card or not

    In any case, back to the topic

    My apologies but it is from the hated BBC mouthpiece of 800 years of oppression etc ……. I couldn’t find one on RTE for balance 🙂

  • Brian Walker

    Just a note of local history. Prehen House at the heart of the area now occupied by the Pecks ( related to the late film star Gregory) was the home of the Knox family, descendants of the great Scots Presbyterian John.

    Mary Ann Knox in the 1760s was accidentally shot dead in her coach by a thwarted suitor “half hanged” MacNaghton, so called because in remorse he hurled himself down on the rope in his eagerness to die. The rope broke but he submitted to be properly hanged the second time.

    In the 1790s Alexander Knox was private secretary to Castlereagh and an architect of the Union.( See John Bew’s fine biography of Castlereagh)

    In 1910 Prehen House passed to a German grandson Baron von Scheffler Knox. In 1914 he was warned by the local gentry to leave quickly or face internment as enemy alien. The property and Prehen Woods around it were forfeited after 1918.

    Much of it was given over to housing development as I understand it, before the Pecks acquired some of what was left and opened the house to the public

    I attended the baron’s interment in the 1960s in Derry city cemetery in a sarcophagus festooned inside with Prussian banners. His son, wounded in the eastern front during WW2, retained connections in the Derry area.

    At least they would probably looked after the woods better than the state.

  • “But it’s pretty hard to see why a local planning service .. would take risks with a habitat”

    Mick, I think Government departments and agencies (and the MSM) – not just the planning service – are reluctant to take risks (in the courts) with developers; there’s the additional problem that politicians can be too supportive of developers. The habitat and the objectors can sometimes win small battles but developers IMO will win the war – by attrition.

    When it comes to planning appeals some developers have employed top flight legal eagles and government departments have turned up with legal folks who are completely out of their depth; it’s a very sad mismatch to observe. Bullying by developer’s agents is, perhaps, not that uncommon; my response is an enigmatic smile. You can probably appreciate why I have disabled the comment facility on NALIL blog; you don’t have to look too far to find a developer story from north Antrim.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Mary Ann Knox in the 1760s was accidentally shot dead in her coach by a thwarted suitor “half hanged” MacNaghton, so called because in remorse he hurled himself down on the rope in his eagerness to die. The rope broke but he submitted to be properly hanged the second time.”

    I didn’t know he died, I always understood they tried to hang him three times but the rope broke each time and, as legend would have it, he was then allowed to go free, hence the half-hanged epithet.

    Of course he lives on in Derry in any mother scolding a scruffy child ” tidy yerself up ye look like half-hanged McNutt [sic].”

  • Harry, Macnaghten died at the second attempt and Dunlop, a Magnaghten tenant who was hanged after him, may have been a relative of mine.

  • They found the gravestone of McNaghton in a disused COI graveyard in the middle of Strabane about 40 or 50 years ago. Caused a stir.

  • He was hanged at Lifford. The local story is that the rope broke on the first attempt and the crowd urged him to flee but he said “No, I will not be known as half-hanged McNaghton”. But, of course, he was.

  • Mick Fealty

    Nevin, that’s not an excuse for refusing to give reasons for their decisions.

  • carl marks

    100+is a good tally mine sits at around a more modest 30 odd,
    Are you aware that the local Red squirrel protection groups would like to send all grey carcases for testing for Pox virus; at one stage I had four in the freezer awaiting pickup.
    I find freezer bags work best they should have time of day, date and where the kill was made written on the bag, I find that a .22 air rifle is the best method of dispatch but as long as you get the wee buggers ( in a humane manner) does it matter.
    There are protection groups all over the north I belong to the Glenariff red squirrel group; they are always looking for new members, check out the website.

  • “that’s not an excuse for refusing to give reasons for their decisions”

    Mick, my posts highlight the impotence of objectors when confronted by determined developers – and Ministers and officials who acquiesce to developer demands.

    Initial reports about Attwood sounded promising but the Ballycastle and Torr puddings, so far, have not lived up to that promise.

  • streetlegal

    There has been an unhealthily cosy relationship between senior civil servants in Planning and the developers. This explains why so many highly questionable developments have been given the green light.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Street, I have to point out in this case I believe it was a planning appeals decision, the are independant, honest.

  • DR, the PACNI outcome may be dependent on the quality of representation used by the developer, the Department and the objectors – see my post 10 February 2012 at 4:11 pm above.

    In this other example I was not impressed by the representation provide by the Department but the outcome favoured well prepared objectors. A short time later the developer submitted some new plans that IMO would have failed the PACNI test but they were approved by the Department and endorsed by the Council on a very narrow vote. The objectors had no more cash to sustain an appeal.

    As yet, I have no reason to believe that the Minister or the Department (or the MSM) will step up to the mark; ‘the habitat and the objectors can sometimes win small battles but developers IMO will win the war – by attrition’.

  • Brian

    Is it common to see Pine Martens around the woods up there?

  • Carl,

    Is it realistic to expect to completely exterminate these unwanted creatures? Would it not be better to declare various woods as being non-grey squirrel zones and keep them free by regular culls?

  • Maria H

    A petition has been started which calls on Alex Attwood, Minister of the Environment to overturn the Planning Service decision on the Prehen Woods development/destruction. We are also calling for an independent inquiry into the procedures, processes and decisions made by planners with regard to Prehen Woods.

    Please sign and share: thanks!

  • carl marks


    Sadly all that is possible (and even then diffIcult) will be to secure some regions with buffer zones around them, wipeing out the grey will i think be impossible.