Disease killing UK's native red squirrels spreads through Scotland

Scientists in Edinburgh have confirmed the death of a red squirrel in Fife was due to the squirrelpox virus.

First death of native red squirrel from squirrelpox virus confirmed north of Scotland’s central belt Supplied

A disease that kills Britain’s native red squirrel has spread to the north of Scotland’s central belt for the first time.

Scientists in Edinburgh confirmed that a red squirrel had died from the squirrelpox virus after the animal was posted in by a member of the public who found it in Dunfermline, Fife, last month.

During a post-mortem examination, scientists found that the red squirrel had ulcers and scabs around the eyes and mouth, both of which were confirmed as pox virus using microscopic examination.

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, the latest case marks the first time that the disease has been confirmed north of Scotland’s central belt.

Red squirrel with squirrelpoxSupplied

Liam Wilson, from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies said the death was a “worrying development” for red squirrels in Scotland.

Squirrelpox is a virus carried by grey squirrels which does not affect them but can be 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.

The disease is usually fatal within two weeks and an outbreak can cause local populations to crash.

Grey squirrels were 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 now in Scotland.

“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,” Mr Wilson added.

Nicole Still, the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s saving Scotland’s red squirrels programme manager, said: “We are extremely concerned about this latest news.

“We 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.”

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