New red squirrel study will assess scale of leprosy threat

Red Squirrel populations are being affected by leprosy
Published : 09 May 2016

We are working with the University of Edinburgh and Dorset Wildlife Trust to better understand the impact of leprosy in Britain’s red squirrels.

The disease was first identified in red squirrels in Scotland in 2014.

Recent post-mortem studies have since revealed that the disease is also affecting squirrels on the Isle of Wight and Brownsea Island, off the south coast of England.

The risk to people from leprosy in squirrels is understood to be very low.

New research study

The new research study will take place on Brownsea Island, in Poole Harbour, Dorset, which is home to around 200 red squirrels. The island location allows researchers to study the disease in a contained environment.

The disease is believed to have been present on Brownsea for many years but researchers have only recently diagnosed it as a form of leprosy.

Lead researcher Professor Anna Meredith, of the University’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, said: ‘The aim of our study is to find out how and why red squirrels catch leprosy, and how it affects both individuals and populations.

‘This disease appears to have been in squirrel populations in Scotland and England’s south coast for some time. With this research, we aim to help conservationists better understand and manage the disease in this iconic species.’

Symptoms and tests

Little is known about how the bacteria is spreading among red squirrels. The disease causes swelling and hair loss to the ears, muzzle and feet.

Vets will use humane traps to capture the squirrels for health checks. They will take blood samples and other clinical samples for analysis before returning the animals to the wild.

Our general manager on Brownsea Island, Angela Cott said: ‘Bringing together academics and conservationists, this research project represents a significant first step towards deepening our understanding of a complex disease in British red squirrels.  

‘Many thousands of people visit Brownsea every year, enjoying the island’s wonderful wildlife. Brownsea will remain open to all visitors throughout the research project.’

Red squirrel populations have drastically declined in the UK with fewer than 140,000 thought to be remaining on our shores. The main threat to their numbers is from habitat loss and the squirrelpox virus, which is deadly to red squirrels.

Child on walking trail at Brownsea Island

Wildlife walk at Brownsea Island in Dorset 

This Brownsea Island walk cuts through the wooded centre of the island. You may spot red squirrels or rare birds, but you won't be too tired by the end.

Red squirrel on Brownsea Island, Dorset.

Brownsea Island, Dorset 

Brownsea Island is a haven for all sorts of wildlife, including red squirrels, which should be easy to spot as they live here in large numbers.

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