Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels has received multiple reports of red squirrels with suspected squirrel-pox virus in Johnsfield just outside Lockerbie. Locals are urged to remain vigilant as this fatal disease could have serious consequences for the local red squirrel population.
Within the past few weeks, and over the festive period, several individual red squirrels have been spotted by members of the public which appear to display classic symptoms of the deadly disease. Very sadly at least 10 red squirrels have been found dead in the area due to suspected squirrelpox.
Squirrelpox is a virus carried by grey squirrels which appears not to affect them and is not considered harmful to humans, but when passed to red squirrels, the virus is often lethal. Symptoms include weeping lesions on the face, paws and genitalia, which prevent the red squirrel from eating, drinking or moving. As a result, it is usually fatal within two weeks and an outbreak can cause local numbers to crash.
Andrew Hodgkinson, Project Officer for Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels said: “This is a particularly vulnerable time for red squirrels, as they prepare for the upcoming mating season and increase contact with one another. We have deployed our emergency squirrelpox outbreak response measures, and as such locals can expect to see an increased staff and volunteer presence in the area as we increase grey control efforts in the region in a bid to stem the outbreak.”
The first known squirrelpox outbreak in Scotland occurred in 2007 near Lockerbie and since then the disease has arisen in various red squirrel populations across the south. Pox carrying grey squirrels are now considered to be widespread throughout South Scotland and the disease could therefore be transferred to local red squirrel populations in any area.
However, despite outbreaks in various areas over the years, targeted grey squirrel control work has ensured that the local red squirrel populations have successfully recovered. Research published in 2016 by Professor Andy White and colleagues has shown that when grey squirrel numbers are kept low, red squirrels are given enough time to repopulate an area after suffering a major decline.
Nicole Still, Programme Manager for Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels said: “It is devastating to learn of this squirrelpox outbreak. Members of the public can help by reporting all sightings of red and grey squirrels to us via our website, thoroughly cleaning all garden feeders with an anti-viral solution which is available from most local farm supply shops, taking feeders down for 2-4 weeks, and posting any dead red squirrel carcasses found to the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies for post-mortem analysis.”
People can report their sightings of both red and grey squirrels at scottishsquirrels.org.uk. Details for how to post carcasses to the Vet School and how to effectively clean feeders 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 and The National Lottery Heritage Fund, thanks to National Lottery players, along with other partners.