red squirrels


Red squirrels in Wales are at risk of being wiped out due to a deadly virus. The squirrel pox virus has killed up to 80% of red squirrels at one of the three sites in Wales where they can still be found. Dr Craig Shuttleworth, an honorary research fellow at Bangor University, warns that unless a vaccine is developed, the red squirrels will continue to be under threat.

There are only about 1,000 red squirrels left in North Wales, mostly on Anglesey. The Welsh government has been called on to fund vaccine research by nearly 11,000 people who signed a petition. Invasive, non-native grey squirrels carry the squirrel pox virus but are not affected by it.

Dr Shuttleworth says that a vaccine could prevent further deaths and help rebuild the population of red squirrels across the UK. The Red Squirrels Northern England group estimates that there are only 290,000 squirrels left in the UK. A vaccine could prove to be a significant investment, with tourists already generating £1m per year to see the squirrels.

The Welsh government has acknowledged the situation and said it would look at emerging evidence and opportunities to support the populations of red squirrels. The government has welcomed the work of people who are protecting the vulnerable species.

There is a successful program on Anglesey to cull all grey squirrels to protect the red squirrels. However, this has proved to be almost impossible to repeat on the mainland. The Treborth red squirrels were almost wiped out after coming into contact with grey squirrels carrying the pox virus. The virus rapidly develops in the red squirrels, causing cuts, blisters, and growths on the skin, and it is highly infectious.

The Welsh government has been called on to take the lead and start funding vaccine research again. A petition to the Senedd has attracted 10,700 signatures, which means that it will now be considered for a debate. Work on a vaccine was underway at Scotland’s Moredun Institute until funding dried up in about 2010. Dr Colin McInnes, who led the original research program, said there is still quite a bit of work to be done, including how the vaccine would be delivered and how much protection it offered.



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