Red squirrel numbers in the UK have been declining for the last century. One of the reasons for this may be that they are extremely susceptible to a virus (SQPV) that is found in the grey squirrel population. Grey squirrels do not appear to be affected by the virus, but when red squirrels become infected they almost inevitably succumb to disease and die within a few weeks.
Until 2005 there was no evidence of SQPV in Scotland. In May that year grey squirrels potentially infected with the virus were detected for the first time in south west Scotland. Since then grey squirrels potentially carrying the virus have been found expanding northwards. In May 2007 pox disease was detected in Scottish red squirrels for the first time. This was in woodland just south of Lockerbie. Since then further outbreaks of disease have been detected near to Langholm, north of Thornhill and to the west of Annan.
Scientists at Moredun were the first to characterise the virus and have been monitoring blood samples from red and grey squirrels to help predict spread of it in Scotland. Research aimed at understanding more about the epidemiology of the disease and the feasibility of producing a vaccine to protect the red squirrels against the virus is also now underway.
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