Belfast Telegraph

Forest hit by fresh outbreak of deadly squirrel pox virus

By Linda Stewart

Tollymore Forest in Co Down has been hit by an outbreak of squirrel pox five years after the virus wiped out 90% of its native red squirrels.

That outbreak saw the first recorded death from the virus in Northern Ireland, but a diseased red squirrel has once again been found by members of the Tollymore Red Squirrel Group.

The disease is carried by the invasive grey squirrel, which appears to be immune to its effects, but red squirrels that contract the virus have little natural resistance and often die within 15 days of infection.

Members of the public have been urged to be on the alert for signs of infected squirrels and to report them to the authorities.

Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) Wildlife Inspector Declan Looney said: "The red squirrels in this forest had recovered well following the first outbreak five years ago but this is a further blow to them.

"Sick red squirrels will appear lethargic, approachable, with painful sores on their faces and paws. Unfortunately there appears little natural resistance to the virus within the local population and sick animals tend to die within 10 days to two weeks. If you have squirrels entering your garden to feed at bird feeders, please either remove these or clean them daily to reduce the spread of the virus." 

A spokesman from the Forest Service, which is a member of the NI Squirrel Forum, said: "It is not unusual for this disease to re-emerge some years after the initial outbreak.

"The fact that the red squirrel population recovered in the intervening years gives us great encouragement that working in partnership with the NIEA and the Tollymore Red Squirrel Group on the implementation of control measures will once again produce a successful outcome.

"We urge anyone visiting Tollymore Forest Park or any red squirrel area to immediately report any sightings of red squirrels showing signs of the disease to the NIEA wildlife team or a member of the NI Squirrel Forum."

Mr Looney said Northern Ireland's first recorded squirrel pox death was at Tollymore in 2011, followed several months later by an outbreak in Glenarm Estate in the Antrim Glens, a red squirrel stronghold.

There were no more outbreaks until last year when a diseased squirrel was found at Garron Tower in the Glens.

"We're coming to realise that it could well have been here for many years. Places where outbreaks were recorded also have the most active squirrel groups on the ground, so it could be down to recording effort," he said.

The virus can be spread through contact with infected lesions or contaminated scabs and can be transferred by contaminated feeders. Grey squirrels have increased their range over the past 20 years, while the range of red squirrels has plummeted, probably as a result of competition for food sources and the greys' resistance to squirrel pox.

Reports of the disease can be made at: http://www2.habitas.org.uk/records/squirrels.

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