A new disease threat has recently been identified in red squirrels from Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland (BBC Scotland). Six animals have been found infected with a bacteria similar to Mycobacterium lepromatosis which causes leprosy. Signs of the disease are swollen nose, eyelids, ears and feet. Prof Anna Meredith from the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh and colleagues are trying to find out more about this little understood, potentially fatal condition. Members of the public who find dead red squirrels in Scotland can send them to the Veterinary Pathology Unit, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Edinburgh. Further details of where to send carcasses found in England and Wales as well as Scotland, and postage and packaging, can be found towards the bottom of this web page. Members of the public are advised to follow basic hygiene rules when handling dead animals.
Representatives from more than 50 parties interested in squirrels met at Dumfries House, Ayrshire, Scotland on 2nd May to discuss a new squirrel accord to conserve red squirrels. HRH Prince Charles attended during the afternoon. Speakers included The Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Mr Simon Jones, Head of Major Projects, Scottish Wildlife Trust who talked about Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels, and Mr Crispin Thorn, Chair, Red Squirrels Northern England Project Management Group, who talked about Red Squirrels Northern England – Coordinating Red Squirrel Conservation. Controlling grey squirrels is a key action in the drive to conserve red squirrels and this has brought criticism from some quarters (see Chris Packham – Ecological cleansing and article by Ocsar Rickett in the Guardian).
Red squirrels became extinct in Portugal in the 16th century, probably as a result of hunting and deforestation. Now, recent news reports (Portuguese American Journal, The Portugal News Online) indicate that it is making a return. Red squirrels moved across from northwest Spain in the 1980s and sightings suggest it has now reached as far south as the River Tagus. Rita Gomes Rocha (University of Aveiro) is reported as saying, “The Red Squirrel in Portugal Project aims to understand the expansion of the red squirrel in the country, what factors influence that expansion and its behaviour patterns”.
On 18th March 2014, Oliver Heald, the Solicitor General, informed a government committee on deregulation: “The order requires occupiers to report the presence of grey squirrels on their land to facilitate the eradication of that species. However, it is no longer considered feasible to eradicate grey squirrels, so the requirement to report their presence on one’s land is no longer useful or observed” ((See TheyWorkForYou). The Grey Squirrels (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order of 1937 therefore is to be abolished. It is noteworthy that it does not appear that anyone has ever been prosecuted for failing to report grey squirrels in their garden. Apparently, the Environment Minister (Owen Paterson) will maintain the power to order the destruction of grey squirrels in parts of the country where red squirrels are present. For reaction see: The Journal, The Telegraph, The Telegraph (Steven Swinford), The Telegraph (James Kirby), The Telegraph (Joe Shute).
A study recently published in PLOS ONE (also see Publications Page) by a team of leading researchers led by Quercus, the biodiversity and conservation research centre at Queen’s University, Belfast, indicates that the virus could be spread from grey squirrel to grey squirrel or grey squirrel to red squirrel in various ways. The virus, which is invariably fatal to red squirrels but benign to grey squirrels, may be passed in urine, faeces or by ectoparasites such as fleas, mites and ticks. Moreover, the scientists found that the virus can survive outside the body, especially in warm, dry conditions in spring and summer. At the present time, keeping the two species apart to reduce encounter rates is the only real way of slowing or preventing the spread of the disease.
A recent study by a team of scientists led by Prof. Anna Meredith (Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh) has found that the red squirrels on the Isle of Arran are fit and in good health with no signs of the presence of squirrelpox virus. Arran is one of 19 Scottish red squirrel strongholds and particularly important because there are no grey squirrels on the island. The study, funded by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and Forestry Commission Scotland, has featured widely in the news (Times, Scotsman (photo!!!), Metro, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Record, Herald, Courier, Evening Telegraph, CBBC, STV News) also looked at ways to safeguard the population into the future including managing the forests in ways that will benefit the red squirrels.
Some 10% of the red squirrels captured at the National Trust’s Red Squirrel Reserve at Formby, Lancashire in recent years have had antibodies to squirrelpox virus in their blood. Red squirrels at the Reserve were hit badly by an outbreak of pox in 2008, and the population has been recovering since then (BBC News) The recent studies carried out by the University of Liverpool show that at least some wild red squirrels can recover from infection but further work is required on whether there is sufficient protection in the population to prevent another outbreak.
In October 2012, five red squirrels (one female and four males), were transported by helicopter from the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey, England to the Island of Tresco (297 ha) in the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall in SW England. The aim is to produce an island safe haven for the animals. A further 20 squirrels were moved by helicopter in September 2013. It is hoped the animals will breed next year in the woodlands around Abbey Gardens. The Establishment of red squirrels on Tresco has been organised collectively by Robin Page, the countryside editor of the Daily Telegraph, the British Wildlife Centre and the Countryside Restoration Trust (also see scillytoday, BBC News Cornwall, This is Cornwall).
Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE) have recently published the Spring 2013 Report of their standardised squirrel monitoring programme across the north of England. The good news is that there has been a 7% increase in tetrads (2 km by 2 km squares) reporting the presence of red squirrels since last year and an 18% decline in tetrads reporting the presence of grey squirrels. These positive findings reflect the very considerable efforts to monitor the presence of red and grey squirrels, and carry out targeted grey squirrel control, by conservation organisations and large numbers of volunteers. The story has been reported in The Telegraph.
Numbers of red squirrels seen on the Isle of Wight appear to have fallen this year. In a BBC News Hampshire and Isle of Wight article, it has been suggested that this results from a combination of the wet summer in 2012 affecting the survival of young animals, an increase in the number of buzzards hunting over the island and an increase in squirrels being infected by the parasitic disease toxoplasmosis from the faeces of domestic cats.