Invasion of grey squirrels putting reds at risk

Red squirrels in the Borders are under threat from the squirrelpox virus, which has been detected in grey squirrels at Coldstream.
Red squirrels in the Borders are under threat from the squirrelpox virus, which has been detected in grey squirrels at Coldstream.

An outbreak of grey squirrels in Berwickshire is concerning red squirrel conservation groups on both sides of the border.

Routine control and monitoring of estates in Coldstream have found grey squirrels to be seropositive, meaning they are carriers of the squirrelpox virus.

According to the Red Squirrel Project, this virus is now the single largest threat to red squirrels in south Scotland.

“The disease is carried by the introduced grey squirrel, but while it is harmless to them, it is lethal to our native red squirrel,” explained Project coordinator Karen Ramoo. “Once infected with the virus, red squirrels suffer a slow, lingering death as the animal starves over about 15 days.”

By chance, the grey squirrels that were introduced into England in 1876 carried the pox virus, while those introduced into Scotland 16 years later were virus-free. And because of this Scotland is still home to around 120,000 red squirrels, an estimated 75 per cent of the UK’s red squirrel population.

“This region of south Scotland is particularly crucial to the survival of red squirrels in Scotland, and it is important we stop seropositive grey squirrels crossing the border from England into south Scotland and infecting our red squirrel population,” Karen continued.

She says it is “imperative” for the long term survival of the species in Scotland that grey squirrels are controlled and that red squirrel populations are protected from this disease.

Red Squirrels in South Scotland are keen to alert local people that seropositive grey squirrels have been detected recently in the area, and they are asking Berwickshire residents to report sightings of both red and grey squirrels.

“We are also pleading with people in the area not to feed red squirrels as this could facilitate the spread of the disease through contact with other squirrels at the feeding sites,” Karen added.

Red Squirrels in South Scotland operate a trap loan scheme offering traps and blood sampling kits, and training is available to anyone wishing to participate. Those interested in joining the scheme can contact Karen Ramoo on 01750 23446 or email karen@redsquirrels.org.uk. You can also contact the Berwick SoS volunteer group on 07536 076131.

For further information on the Red Squirrel in South Scotland project, visit www.redsquirrels.org.uk where there is also an online form available to report red and grey squirrel sightings.