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First death of red squirrel from squirrelpox virus confirmed north of Scotland’s Central Belt

Posted on 05/04/2024 by Katie Berry

 





The first identified death of a red squirrel from squirrelpox virus north of Scotland’s Central Belt has been confirmed on the outskirts of Dunfermline, Fife. This news could have serious consequences for the area’s red squirrel populations, and people living in the region are urged to remain vigilant.


The case was confirmed via post-mortem examination of a red squirrel by the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, after the squirrel was posted in by a member of the public who found it whilst walking in woodlands on the northern outskirts of Dunfermline last month. This red squirrel had ulcers and scabs around the eyes and mouth, both of which were confirmed as pox virus using microscopic examination at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and electron microscopy at the Animal and Plant Health Agency, Weybridge.


Squirrelpox is a virus carried by grey squirrels which does not affect them but can be rapidly lethal when passed to red squirrels. Symptoms include ulcers, scabs and weeping lesions on the face, paws and genitalia, all of which can prevent reds from eating, drinking or moving. As a result, it is usually fatal within two weeks and an outbreak can cause local populations to crash.


Liam Wilson, from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies said:

“This is a worrying development for red squirrels in Scotland, as this case north of the Central Belt may be the prelude to squirrelpox expansion both locally and further northward, although more investigative work is required to fully assess this risk. This case also highlights the key role members of the public have in wildlife conservation, as this case was detected from the submission of a dead red squirrel by a member of the public. If any members of the public come across further dead red squirrels in and around Dunfermline, these can be posted to us for examination using these detailed guidelines


The first known outbreak of squirrelpox in Scotland occurred in 2007 near Lockerbie and since then the disease has arisen in various red squirrel populations across south Scotland. However, this is the first time that a case has been confirmed north of Scotland’s Central Belt. Its arrival poses a major threat to Scotland’s more northerly red squirrels.

In the face of this new threat, conservation charities are asking for locals to remain vigilant and take action to help reduce the spread of the disease. Nicole Still, Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels (SSRS) Programme Manager, Scottish Wildlife Trust, said:

“We are extremely concerned about this latest news and are asking the local community in Dunfermline to take immediate action and protect red squirrels by taking in all garden and woodland wildlife feeders for the next month, as these can contribute to the spread of the disease from greys to reds and between reds once infected.


We are also asking for everybody to keep a close eye out for, and take photos of, any sick looking red squirrels and email these into us, as well as report all sightings of both species to our website to inform local efforts.”


Additionally, local organisations are working on the ground alongside SSRS and the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies to determine the spread of the disease thus far and protect red squirrels in the area. The Eastern Lowland’s Red Squirrel Group is leading on local efforts, working in partnership with the volunteer-led Fife Red Squirrel Group. Those interested in volunteering with survey and/or grey squirrel control efforts in the Dunfermline area can email elredsquirrelgroup@gmail.com.


Scotland’s red squirrel populations are under threat from the spread of the invasive non-native grey squirrel which, along with carrying the squirrelpox virus, also outcompete red squirrels for food and habitat. Greys were first introduced to the UK from North America by the Victorians and have since displaced red squirrels in most of England and Wales, with more than 75% of the UK’s total remaining population residing in Scotland today.

Research has shown that when squirrelpox is present, greys can replace red populations around twenty times as fast as they can through competition alone, but that when grey squirrel numbers are kept low, red squirrels are given enough time to repopulate an area after suffering a major decline.


People can report their sightings of both red and grey squirrels at scottishsquirrels.org.uk, along with emailing photos of sick reds to squirrels@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk. Details for how to post carcasses to the Vet School can also be found on the site. Although squirrelpox is not considered harmful to humans, anyone who sees a sick red squirrel is advised not to approach it, but instead contact the project for advice.


Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels is a partnership project led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and supported by the Scottish Government’s Nature Restoration Fund, managed by NatureScot.

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