Humans expose red squirrels to killer viruses

Good intentions are hampering the red squirrel's battle against extinction. Photograph: Mode/REX

Good intentions are hampering the red squirrel's battle against extinction. Photograph: Mode/REX

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THE return of the red squirrel is being threatened by nature lovers who are killing them with kindness, campaigners have claimed.

The iconic and much-loved species has made a remarkable comeback throughout Scotland in recent years.

The success of conservation measures means the creatures once threatened by extinction are once again appearing in forests and gardens from Dumfries and Galloway to the Moray Firth.

But wildlife experts have raised fears that well-meaning home owners are inadvertently harming the bushy-tailed mammals by leaving food outside for them.

Campaigners claim that garden feeders can harbour a host of deadly diseases, including squirrelpox virus and leprosy, if they are not cleaned regularly.

They are also warning people not to leave out inappropriate foods, such as peanuts, which can damage the health of the woodland visitors.

Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS), a state-funded conservation body, is now issuing guidance to help protect the creatures’ fragile revival. Ken Neil, the organisation’s Tayside project officer, claimed there was a danger that well-intended actions could do more harm than good.

He said: “People are utterly delighted when they discover red squirrels in their gardens. Quite naturally, they are keen to feed them.

“However, we want to make sure they don’t do anything to inadvertently harm these very-welcome visitors.”

Neil said that treat-stuffed plastic or wooden feeders can become breeding grounds for a host of potentially fatal diseases.

“The biggest issue is the squirrelpox virus which crossed over into Scotland in 2005,” he said. “Unlike the larger greys, the reds have no immunity and it is devastating for them.

“Over the past two or three years we have also begun to encounter cases of a form of squirrel leprosy which gives them terrible sores.

He warned that too many peanuts can lead to calcium deficiency and malnutrition.

He said: “Like humans, red squirrels need their vitamins and minerals too, so it is best to leave out a variety of things like sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, apple, berries and ­carrots.”

Squirrels require the most help from humans in summer. “It may sound strange and counter-intuitive, but the hardest time for our native squirrels is the summer months,” said Neil. “All the things they like to eat, like nuts, berries and fungi, only start to become available once autumn comes along.”

Dr Mel Tonkin, SSRC’s project manager, warned that Scotland’s native squirrels were far from out of the woods. She said: “Our work will need to continue for many years to secure the future of the species.”

A guide to feeding red squirrels in your garden

Do

» Keep feeders disease-free by using broad spectrum disinfectants from pet shops

» Leave out a variety of natural foods

» Keep feeding in the summer

» Fix a piece of deer antler or animal bone to a tree. It’s a fantastic source of calcium

Don’t

» Feed them just peanuts

» Put out a feeder close to a busy road or where a cat lives. Aside from squirrel pox, traffic collisions and cats are the most common cause of red squirrel deaths

» Feed grey squirrels

» Give them salted nuts. It’s harmful to them

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