Squirrelpox outbreak along Tweed leads to new appeal

Red Squirrel Pox Outbreak River Tweed Berwickshire
Red Squirrel Pox Outbreak River Tweed Berwickshire

A PLEA is being made on behalf of red squirrels - that members of the public stop feeding them at garden feeders.

This is because the feeders are a focal points for both red and grey squirrels which leaves the reds vulnerable to picking up the squirrelpox disease which is causing such devastation to their numbers.

The virus, carried by the non-native American grey squirrel, has been contracted by the red squirrels living close to the River Tweed in Berwickshire, where two animals showing symptoms were discovered recently.

Whilst squirrelpox is harmless to the grey squirrels that carry it, it is fatal to our native red squirrel and causes an agonising death within two weeks.

Estates on both sides of the River Tweed have been conducting intensive grey squirrel control and have effectively removed substantial numbers of grey squirrels from the area.

Karen Ramoo of Red Squirrels in South Scotland (RSSS) said: “We desperately need the public to help us stop this disease from spreading.

“We would like people in the area to stop feeding red squirrels at feeders in their gardens for the time being.

“We know that seeing reds at feeders gives people an enormous amount of pleasure but feeders are a focal point for squirrel to squirrel disease transmission and thus increases the likelihood of the disease spreading.”

Apart from this outbreak, there have been no other outbreaks of the squirrelpox virus detected in this area and the spread of pox carrying grey squirrels seems to have been contained within the known areas.

This success is due to the combined efforts of the public, private and voluntary sectors in south Scotland that are working together under the RSSS project.

Karen added: “The control of grey squirrels and the squirrelpox virus they carry is of paramount importance in our efforts to save Scotland’s red squirrels.

The squirrelpox virus which is carried by grey squirrels migrating north into Scotland from England is the single biggest threat to the survival of our native red.

“Scotland is now home to over 75% of the surviving UK red squirrel population but incursion by greys is now the single largest threat.

The squirrelpox virus also has the devastating effect of speeding up the rate at which grey squirrels displace and replace reds (usually about 15 years) by a factor of 20, denying researchers adequate time to develop an effective vaccine for reds or a contraceptive for greys, along with targeted ways of administering them.

“It is our hope that with continued and increased support from the public we shall continue to watch red squirrels flourish. I hope as many householders and landowners as possible get on board and help in the fight to save our reds.

“Despite the bad news from the area, the overall picture for red squirrels is looking good and in recent weeks we have had reports of red squirrels returning to new parts of this area reinforcing just how quickly reds can make a comeback when the pressure from grey squirrels is alleviated.

“It is essential people in Berwickshire keep a vigilant watch over red squirrels and report immediately any unhealthy looking reds.

The main symptoms to look out for are lesions/scabs around the feet and eyes and the squirrel will appear lethargic in its movements.”

If you would like to get involved with the project and join the RSSSW trap loan scheme please contact Karen on 01750 23446 or email karen@redsquirrels.org.uk.

RSSS are keen to receive your reports of both red and grey squirrel sightings. Sightings can be submitted using the form on their web site at: www.redsquirrels.org.uk or by emailing them in to info@redsquirrels.org.uk.