Red squirrels in Scotland are facing a threat from leprosy. Has this something to do with a lack of natural predators?

An infected red squirrel
Scotland’s red squirrels, already in decline are now facing a new threat from a form of leprosy, according to scientists in Edinburgh.

Red squirrels in Scotland are being killed by a form of leprosy that makes them lose their fur and die after causing painful swelling to their noses, ears and feet. The new infection is the latest threat to the rare animals that have been in decline for years due to competition from invasive grey squirrels and the deadly “squirrelpox” virus.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have discovered six cases caused by bacteria similar to Mycobacterium lepromatosis, which causes leprosy, since 2006. Little is known about how the disease spreads and it has never before been seen in red squirrels.

Professor Anna Meredith, from Edinburgh’s Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies, urged members of the public to report sightings of infected animals. “We suspect this disease is more widespread than the six cases we have confirmed,” she told the BBC.

Formby, Lancashire is well known as a special place to see red squirrels


Red squirrels have been declining in Britain since the 19th Century. They are threatened by the grey squirrel and already face the major threat of the squirrelpox virus. “This is the last thing that they need – another disease which could potentially threaten the population.”

The leprosy is not believed to pose a threat to humans and has only so far been found in Scotland, from Dumfries and Galloway to the Moray Firth.

The red squirrel is the UK’s only native squirrel and numbers have declined rapidly since the introduction of grey squirrels from North America in the 19th Century, according to the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project.

Around 95 per cent of red squirrels in England and Wales have been wiped out since 1952 and three quarters of the remaining population is found in Scotland.

Greys have replaced the native reds in much of Britain because they compete more successfully for food and habitat and transmit the deadly squirrelpox virus.

Red squirrels are being wiped out by a virus carried by grey squirrels

Red squirrels are being wiped out by a virus carried by grey squirrels Conservationists emphasised that squirrelpox, which is carried by greys but does not affect them, was still a greater threat than leprosy.

The pox is often mistaken for myxomatosis and causes, swellings, scabs and blindness that stops the squirrels feeding and kills them within 15 days.

Researchers in Edinburgh said dead red squirrels found by members of the public could be sent to them by post for research on squirrelpox and leprosy.

People are advised to follow basic hygiene rules before and after handling dead squirrels.

Would you want to cuddle this squirrel now!!

How these ‘Red Alert’ Groups, many via the local Wildlife Trusts have shot themselves in the foot with this one. By excepting hand outs from the government and lottery funding and not helping the establishment of predators to weed out these diseased animals the future of the squirrel will again be in the balance. Cage trapping of both grey and red squirrels using the same trap does not help and may even be responsible for spreading disease from one species to another.
Work in Ireland has shown that Grey Squirrels can not expand their range when facing predation of up to 68% by the Pine Marten. With an amazing 95% of Grey Squirrel taken as food by Goshawks in the breeding season, both squirrels should be encouraged to be taken by these predators. The problem lies in the fact that both predators although protected by law are being removed at an alarming rate by shooting estates. The Pine Marten is extinct in England and Goshawk is only hanging on in publicly owned Forestry. You have Prince Charles claiming great work by the ‘Red Alert’ while his friends allow diseases to flourish on their estates.
Public Relations with big estate owners never works as they only want one thing which is to control predation by raptors on their game birds. It is about time the Wildlife Trusts swallowed the bullet and came out against these estates and educated their members in a way they are able to better understand predator/prey relationships.

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