Virus outbreak threatens Scotland’s red squirrels

Environmental experts have appealed for help after a virus outbreak was recorded among Scotland’s already threatened population of red squirrels.

Squirrelpox only affects red squirrels, although the virus is carried by greys. Picture: Lisa Fuller
Squirrelpox only affects red squirrels, although the virus is carried by greys. Picture: Lisa Fuller

A number of squirrelpox cases have been recorded along the Solway Coast in the last month, prompting emergency action from conservationists.

The Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels campaign has asked locals to remove wildlife feeding equipment and report sightings of animals with signs of disease as a matter of priority.

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Squirrelpox is carried by grey squirrels but is deadly only to reds. While outbreaks are common, the rural area on the south coast is not known to have had one before.

Scotland's has the largest population of red squirrels in the UK. Picture: Steve Gardner

Symptoms include lesions which prevent the red squirrel from eating, drinking or moving. It is usually fatal within two weeks and an outbreak can cause local numbers to crash.

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In recent weeks at least 15 red squirrels have died as a result of squirrelpox, with more sick squirrels spotted across an area that spans from Palnackie to Carsethorn in Kirkcudbrightshire.

Experts said wildlife feeder boxes and garden bird tables increase the risk of squirrelpox transmission as they bring squirrels of both species into closer contact with one another.

While the virus is initially spread by grey squirrels, once it has entered the red squirrel population, red-to-red squirrel transmission will also occur. Campaigners said it was therefore imperative that all squirrels are prevented from coming into close contact at feeders during an outbreak.

A long-time red squirrel stronghold in Dumfries & Galloway, this part of the Solway coast has seen a small number of grey squirrels move into the area in recent times and begin to spread widely.

Dr Stephanie Johnstone, conservation officer for Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels said: “With support of local volunteers from the Solway Forests Red Squirrel Network, we have deployed emergency squirrelpox outbreak response measures.

“Grey squirrels are being removed from the area through live trapping and humane dispatch. We know that when grey squirrel numbers are kept low, red squirrel populations can recover following the devastation of an outbreak.

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“Any captured sick red squirrels will be taken to a veterinary clinic in Castle Douglas where they will be assessed and either treated or euthanised.”

John Lind, who volunteers with the Solway Forests Red Squirrel Network, said: “The arrival of this disease in our area is very distressing. I have seen too many cases now and we need to try and combat the spread of this outbreak. One way people can help is by reporting sick red squirrels and healthy greys to us when they are seen.”