Edinburgh University study to examine red squirrel leprosy

Red squirrels are mostly to be found in Scotland. Picture: PA

Red squirrels are mostly to be found in Scotland. Picture: PA

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Wildlife experts are launching a study to find out how a form of leprosy is affecting threatened red squirrels.

The project aims to find out how the disease affects and is passed between the red squirrels, and if conservationists can control its spread.

Leprosy was identified in red squirrels for the first time in Scotland in 2014, although it is thought to have been in the population for centuries.

Post-mortem examinations have revealed it is also affecting squirrels on the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, Dorset, which are among the few spots in England that red squirrels are still found.

Numbers of the animal have fallen drastically to around 140,000 in the UK, with most of the population in Scotland.

The main threats to red squirrels are habitat loss and the introduced American grey squirrel, which out-compete their native cousins and spread, squirrelpox a disease fatal to the reds.

The new research project focusing on leprosy will take place on Brownsea Island, where the disease is thought to have been for many years but was only recently diagnosed.

Little is known about how the leprosy bacteria – which causes swelling and hair loss to the ears, muzzle and feet of the creatures – are spread among red squirrels.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh will work with the National Trust, which manages the island where around 200 red squirrels are found, and Dorset Wildlife Trust, which manages a large nature reserve on the island.

Humane traps will be used to capture the squirrels for health checks before returning the mammals to the wild.

The island location of the study will enable researchers to examine the impact of leprosy on the squirrels in a contained environment.

Lead researcher Professor Anna Meredith, of Edinburgh University, said: “The aim of our study is to find out how and why red squirrels catch leprosy, and how it affects individuals and populations.

“This disease appears to have been in squirrel populations in Scotland and England’s south coast for some time. With this research we aim to help conservationists better understand the disease in this iconic species.”

The risk to humans from the disease is negligible, the wildlife experts added, and Brownsea Island will remain open to the public while the research is going on.

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