A DEADLY virus responsible for the deaths of hundreds of red squirrels has been found in Scotland’s central belt for the first time.
The Squirrel Pox Virus, which is carried by American grey squirrels, has been detected just south of Glasgow and conservationists warn it could have spread as far north as Fife and Tayside.
The new discovery has led to fears that the deadly squirrel pox, which crossed into Scotland from England, is continuing to move north and that extinction is a real possibility for the native species.
Experts warn the disease could have spread as far as Fife and Tayside
Scotland currently homes about 75% of the UK population of red squirrels and expert Sophie Eastwood, from the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust, said the future for the area’s red squirrels had become critical.
She said: The recent confirmation that squirrel poxvirus has reached the central belt is the absolute worst case scenario for the future of the red squirrel in Scotland.
“Until a vaccine exists, the only way to protect red squirrels from the virus is by removing grey squirrels. It is likely it will have spread further north and Fife is perhaps next in the firing line.”
She added: “Northern Ireland recently had a pox outbreak and around 90% of the red squirrel population was wiped out. If the same happens in Scotland there will probably be some population left, but they will be even more vulnerable than they are now.”
Squirrel Pox is carried by the American grey squirrels and kills the reds
There are believed to be around 120,000 red squirrels left in Scotland and Sophie has called on the public to join in efforts to the species. She said: “The red squirrel is our native species and local extinction is now a real possibility.
“This is a species on our doorstep that we have the chance to protect.”
The poxvirus crossed into Scotland from England and the main symptoms of the bug are lesions or scabs around the feet and eyes of the squirrel, along with lethargic movements. The animals often take two weeks to die
“It is now the fault of the introduced grey squirrel, which happens to be a very successful species in this country, but it is up to us to redress the balance and give red squirrels a chance to survive.”
Since being introduced to Scotland, more than two centuries ago, grey squirrels have dominated over red species, taking over much of their traditional habitats and carrying a lethal pox virus which is harmless to them but fatal to red squirrels.
Grey squirrel numbers in Scotland are controlled through a mix of professional squirrel control and by members of the public.
It is illegal to release, or allow the escape of, a grey squirrel into the wild.
Members of the public are encouraged to report the findings of dead squirrels.