Britain’s native population of red squirrels, already under threat from the introduced American grey squirrel, are facing a new deadly danger in the form of leprosy. The disease was first identified in Scottish red squirrels two years ago, but it has since been identified on Brownsea Island in Dorset, and in animals on the Isle of Wight.
A new study is being conducted on the red squirrel population of Brownsea Island, to try and establish how the leprosy bacteria—which causes swelling and hair loss to the ears, muzzle and feet—is spread between red squirrels. The disease is not thought to pose a threat to humans—even those with red hair.
Poole Harbour, Brownsea is famous as the birthplace of the scouting movement. It has a colony of around 200 red squirrels, which will be studied by researchers from the University of Edinburgh, working with the National Trust, which manages the island.
The scientists will use humane traps to catch the animals, returning them back to the wild after conducting blood tests and various health checks. Islands are ideal testing grounds for such research, as they provide naturally contained conditions.
Red squirrels have long been under siege from their grey cousins, which were introduced to Britain in 1876, for no apparent reason whatsoever. Greys are more successful at breeding and competing for shrinking habitat, and they have also spread the deadly squirrel pox through the native population. Although greys carry and communicate the pox, they have developed an immunity to the virus, while it typically proves fatal for reds within a couple of weeks of infection. Squirrels are also sometimes killed by birds of prey and domestic cats.
Currently Britain has around 140,000 red squirrels, while the national population of greys is a nut-busting 2.5 million. Without protection, conservationist warn that the beautiful red species could disappear from the UK’s shores within a generation.