Study launched after new health threat to red squirrels emerges

Wildlife experts are launching a study to find out how a form of leprosy is affecting threatened red squirrels.

A red squirrel in Stannington. Picture by Mark Legard
A red squirrel in Stannington. Picture by Mark Legard

The project aims to find out how the disease affects and is passed between the red squirrels, a native species immortalised by Beatrix Potter in the Tale Of Squirrel Nutkin, and how conservationists can control its spread.

Leprosy was identified in red squirrels for the first time in Scotland in 2014, though it is thought to have been in the population for centuries.

Post-mortem examinations have revealed it is also affecting squirrels on the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island, in Poole Harbour, Dorset, which are among the few spots in England that red squirrels are still found.

Numbers of the animal have fallen drastically to around 140,000 in the UK, with most of the population in Scotland.

The main threats to red squirrels come from habitat loss and the introduced American grey squirrel, which out-compete their native cousins and spread a disease “squirrelpox” which is fatal to the reds.

The new research project focusing on leprosy will take place on Brownsea Island, where the disease is thought to have been for many years but only recently diagnosed.

Little is known about how the leprosy bacteria, which causes swelling and hair loss to the ears, muzzle and feet, is spread among red squirrels.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh will work with the National Trust, which manages the island where around 200 red squirrels are found, and Dorset Wildlife Trust, which manages a large nature reserve on the island.

Humane traps will be used to capture the squirrels for health checks, taking blood and other clinical samples before returning the mammals to the wild.

The island location of the study will enable researchers to examine the impact of leprosy on the squirrels in a contained environment.