Deadly threat to red squirrels found in central belt for first time


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.


  1. It has been proven that when Greys are removed, Reds return. The key is to kill the Greys.

    This news is another reason to cull the Greys. Grey Squirrels simply shouldn’t be here. They are not native and have no niche in the British countryside.

    Grey Squirrels should be culled on huge scale in the central belt. That is a fairly closed environment and it would be entirely possible to eradicate the Greys in that area. The Greys are rather isolated there.

    Cull all Grey Squirrels now. I would donate money to that and I would do it myself if I lived in the central belt.

  2. Conservationists tell us that grey squirrels are the “cause” of the red squirrel decline through the transmission of squirrel-pox virus (SQPV) but there is no evidence to support this. It is merely speculation presented as fact. There are a number of ongoing grant funded studies to try to determine the route of infection but would this expensive research be required if the route was already known?

    It is known that the disease characteristics are similar to other poxvirus infections and that most are resistant to drying. This can allow infected lesions or crusts to remain infected for a long time thus allowing the spread of the disease throughout the forest environment by almost any creature that comes into contact with it. Indeed, Scottish Natural Heritage admit they do not know the route of transmission and that “possibilities include being passed by ectoparasites, fleas, lice, ticks and mites which may transfer from animal to animal in the dreys”. They also acknowledge the virus may be airborne spread. Research by McInnes et al in 2006 acknowledges “the possibility that the virus is endemic to the UK and that other rodent species inhabiting the same woodland environment could be harbouring the virus.

    • The route of infection refers to how it is spread from animal to animal (i.e. saliva, scent markings, ectoparasites, etc).

      Greys are commonly found with antibodies to SQPV. They have clearly been exposed to it previously. The fact that most became immune does not change the ability of Greys to pass the disease on. The Greys would have passed it on to each other when they weren’t immune.

      Greys which are far from Red populations have been seen to succumb to the virus when they are stressed. They were nowhere near the Reds, but they were still being exposed to it.

      If the disease could be passed on by other animals, the Reds in Scotland would have suffered from the disease years previously to today.

      Greys also out compete the Reds for food. Greys live in much higher densities and eat more food than the Reds and eventually crowd them out.

      If Greys occupy an area for 15 years, the Reds are either extinct or confined to small local pockets. Unless if Greys are removed via culling. A study (in the 40s I believe) proved this by observing the spread of the Greys and the time Reds and Greys occupied the same area.

      Greys are clearly largely responsible for the decline of the Red Squirrel.

      Targeted and sustained culls get on top of Grey numbers and then keep on top. Culling works if done properly, which it is being.

      Please see my other post for further details.

  3. The almost daily venomous attack by conservationists on grey squirrels for not being native to this country is dutifully followed up by the claim that red squirrels are “native”. However, this may not be so in terms of the conservationists’ criterion for a native species, which is they are presumed to be present in Great Britain by natural means after the last Ice Age, without the assistance of humans – a profoundly flawed concept, that assumes we are not part of nature.

    There certainly is some pretty shaky evidential snapshots of them existing in England but never in Scotland as s it is understood that some of the caves in the Wye Valley were subjected to flooding following the retreat of the last ice age when the North Sea met the Atlantic. It could be feasible that the remains of bones and significantly, marine molluscs, found there and at the Undercliffe in the Isle of Wight might be no more than debris washed in from continental Europe during that period of immense upheaval.

    For some time I have been looking into the use of squirrel fur during the early medieval period and can find no record of indigenous squirrel fur being used in Great Britain. In the later middle-ages the central distribution point for squirrel skins from the Baltics, Scandinavia and Russia was Bruges, from where skins were imported to Great Britain via London and the Eastern Ports including York which was at that time navigable from the North Sea. Therefore, it is no surprise that the first mention of “squirrels” in England was by Hugh, the Bishop of Lincoln, (later St Hugh) towards the end of the 12th century. So a far more likely explanation for the arrival of the red squirrel in the British Isles – rather than being regarded as “native” on the strength of bone finds that appear not to have belonged to the same sub- species – is that they were imported as live animals from mainland Europe because of the well known and recorded price fluctuations of European skins that threatened the livelihood of skinners and tanners throughout Great Britain. This would explain the thousands of years of no squirrel records in England and red squirrels establishing themselves in the later middle-ages, probably in similar circumstances to that of the American mink nowadays. It is also understood that red squirrels were kept in captivity in Ireland for their fur which was exported to mainland Britain; again no record of them being “native”.

    Rather than the red squirrel being a “native species” there seems a much better case for regarding it as being introduced on a commercial basis by fur industry entrepreneurs as a “grow-our-own-fur” enterprise that failed because the thicker fur from colder parts of Europe and Russia was more desirable by the end user. These furs were known as, greywerk, miniver, gris, and vair – all continental names.

    When I recently asked Scottish Natural Heritage what actual evidence they had that the red squirrel species was native to Scotland, they replied, “We note, but do not agree with your contention that red squirrels are not native”. Obviously they have no evidence; only a belief.

    Perhaps they also believe in fairies.

  4. It has been proven that Reds have been in Britain since the end of the last ice age. There is plenty of archaeological evidence to prove this.

    And don’t say “Reds aren’t native because many came from Scandinavia”. Reds were restocked. RESTOCKED. Not introduced to a new area entirely. Native refers to the species and not the individuals. Reds as a species are native to the UK. The Reds brought over from Scandinavia were the same type present in Britain for thousands of years previously.

    And regardless of origin, Red Squirrels have a niche, while the Greys do not. Greys are bigger, more aggressive, eat more, and live in much higher densities (15 per ha for Greys, 3 per ha for Reds). Reds can live in this country without doing any serious damage to other wildlife, while the Grey has forced the Red to the brink of extinction, and has impacted on bird numbers (yes this has been proven).
    We have kept my friend’s farm pretty much Grey free for several years, and songbird numbers have risen quite dramatically. The wood was once silent. Now it has many birds, including dunnocks, Robins, Blackbirds and Chaffinches among others.

    Greys are largely responsible for the Reds’ decline. Whenever Greys are removed, the Reds benefit, and return to former territory, sometimes within weeks. Human persecution of Reds has long ceased, and woodland is increasing and has been for years. Most woodland was conifer woodland planted for forestry, but the Reds have continued to decline. Grey Squirrel culling is the final piece of the puzzle.

    There is plenty of evidence to prove that Greys carry the virus. Greys are commonly found with the antibodies, so they have clearly been exposed to the disease, and probably still are. If they did not carry the disease, they would not have antibodies. The Greys can carry it without being affected, because of antibodies which could only have been there as a result of exposure to the virus.
    And when Greys are stressed, they have been seen to succumb to the virus. They were away from Red Squirrel populations, but they were still exposed to it. The Greys are almost certainly a carrier. When they gain immunity, nothing stops them from carrying the disease.
    To assume that SQPV has somehow disappeared from Grey Squirrels since the Greys became largely immune is irrational. There are no confirmed records of SQPV before Greys were introduced.

    Culling of Greys works. Targeted and sustained culling has been seen to work, with Reds reoccupying former territory, sometimes within weeks. Targeted and suatained culls work without causing any major problems, and sustained culls get on top and then keep on top of the Greys, so do not say that culling causes Grey population increases. They don’t if done properly.

    Reds can live without doing serious damage to other species, because of their lower natural densities. Greys have been the main cause of the Red’s decline, and have had an impact on bird numbers (yes this has been proven).
    So to sum up, Reds have a niche, Greys don’t.

    I fully support the culling of Grey Squirrels. And I would happily do it myself. Nothing anyone says or does is going to change that.

    • UPDATE: There are no confirmed cases of SQPV before Greys were introduced. Yes SQPV was discovered several decades ago, but looks at records do not confirm any SQPV like disease before Greys were brought here.

      And human introductions of species are not legitimate at all. Humans upset the balance by bringing the Greys here, and humans should put it right.
      What about when the Dodo became extinct after predators were introduced by people? Was that “legitimate”? Course not.

      Humans are not part of nature. Human activity has destroyed habitats and caused the extinction of too many species. If humans were left to do as they please, the planet could be irreparably damaged (global warming, introductions of vermin animals, etc). Human activity is not “natural” in any way.

  5. Absolutely wrong!

    It is known that the disease characteristics are similar to other poxvirus infections and that most are resistant to drying. This can allow infected lesions or crusts to remain infected for a long time thus allowing the spread of the disease throughout the forest environment by almost any creature that comes into contact with it. Indeed, Scottish Natural Heritage admit they do not know the route of transmission and that “possibilities include being passed by ectoparasites, fleas, lice, ticks and mites which may transfer from animal to animal in the dreys”. They also acknowledge the virus may be airborne spread. Research by McInnes et al in 2006 acknowledges “the possibility that the virus is endemic to the UK and that other rodent species inhabiting the same woodland environment could be harbouring the virus.

    Under a Freedom of Information request “The Forestry Commission have admitted that no routine testing of live red squirrels is undertaken” and they “are not aware of any scientific evidence one way or another as to whether or not there is a resistant population of reds out there”. So it is quite wrong to claim red squirrels have no immunity to the disease. Indeed, recent research by London zoologists has established that red squirrels are beginning to show signs of natural immunity.

    Early in the last century, out of forty-four districts in England where red squirrels had the disease only four districts had grey squirrels present. This suggests that SQPV has been within the red squirrel population for around a century at least and that grey squirrels are victims of a campaign of unfair vilification. Some people even have the audacity to claim that SQPV somehow arrived around the time it was discovered in 1983 but that is about as ridiculous as claiming America didn’t exist before it was “discovered” by Leif Ericson – centuries before Christopher Columbus was born.

  6. Greys do act as a reservoir host. Evidence of this is only increasing. Greys were culled on Anglesey since the end of the 90s. As the Grey population dropped, so did the percentage of Greys with the antibodies. Greys clearly act as a reservoir host. Other animals may or may not spread the virus as well.
    Reds are not immune. No wild Reds have survived, and antibodies do not imply immunity. It shows that the body mounted an immune response. Reds die before this is successful, unless a vet intervenes.
    IF Reds do gain immunity, it is definitely not going to happen anytime soon. It will take many years IF they do gain immunity.
    If the virus is airborne spread, which is unlikely for pox like infections, why are Reds in the Scotland strongholds not succumbing to the disease?
    Which districts were these? How far were they from the main Grey populations?
    If other animals can spread it, could movement of animals around the country not have helped it spread? Could someone taking their pet to a new house or something not spread it? And depending on the proximity to Grey populations, could other wild animals not have spread it from the Grey Squirrel reservoir host? You have to consider all the options.
    There are no records of any SQPV like disease before Greys arrived. Greys clearly brought it over here.
    Greys also out-compete the Reds for food. Even without the disease Reds and Greys do not live together for longer than 15 years. There are few exceptions to this.
    Greys are not victims of vilification. They have nearly wiped out the Reds (yes they did so don’t go denying it like you do on your website). Due to the Grey’s higher population density, breeding ability and food requirement, Greys have done more damage to other species than Red Squirrels ever did (songbirds, dormice, trees, etc.). Greys are an ecological disaster and they must be removed.
    Reds are an important species in the British countryside and they must be protected and also allowed to expand their range. Culling the Greys is essential for this. And yes culling DOES work, despite what you and animal aid seem to think for whatever reason.

  7. What proof? There’s none. In fact culling greys has been shown to increase the fecundity of those left leading to an increase in population. The same thing happens with deer in national parks in America.

    • For some reason you think culling involves trapping a few squirrels and then forgetting about it, which it does not. Culling is carried out on an ongoing basis. Greys are removed from an area and any greys that come back into the area are trapped as well as traps are set constantly. Common sense proves it.

      Leaving the squirrels alone does much more damage than culling them.

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