Squirrel Pox

Grey squirrel

American grey squirrels have long been a cause for concern in Scotland. This non-native species competes for habitat and food with our smaller native red squirrels but more ominously than that, many are carriers of the destructive squirrel pox virus.

Squirrel pox is increasingly a problem in Scotland. Carried by - though not harmful to - greys it is deadly to the reds and there are growing reports of the disease's presence across the country.

Virus effects

While details of the method of infection from grey to red remain unclear, what is known is that squirrels which catch the pox will suffer a particularly nasty and prolonged death.

Dead red squirrel affected by the pox virus

The virus causes lesions around the squirrel's eyes, nose, mouth, hands and genitals; it leads to breathing problems and blindness. The squirrel will lose the ability to forage for food and will eventually die of dehydration and starvation. This can take around two weeks to occur.

England's example

The pox is not just a problem north of the border. Speaking on Radio Scotland's Out of Doors programme Carrie Nicholson of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust revealed that it hadn't been a difficult decision to instigate a cull of greys in her area. “We've always known that if you want to keep reds on mainland England you have to kill greys. It's as simple as that. They are vermin, they are an invasive non-native species and if the competition for the habitat wasn't bad enough, the real issue is that about 80% of the English squirrel population carries the pox virus.

Grey squirrel

“The scientific research shows that where greys carrying squirrel pox move into an area of reds you lose the reds up to 25 times quicker than just through competition alone.

"We're hoping to stop a lot of the greys coming north of the border and that's one of the reasons why we've taken the decision to appoint a grey squirrel control officer for north-east Cumbria and west Northumberland, because we know that the majority of greys crossing the border from England into Scotland are coming through Cumbria and they are carrying the squirrel pox virus. The Scottish Borders has a quarter of the Scottish population of red squirrels - about 30,000 of them.

“The problem is not going to go away. We'll do our best on this side of the border to stop them coming across, but realistically until we have a workable and deliverable vaccine for squirrel pox [...] the only way of controlling the problem is to kill the greys.”

What next?

Red squirrel

The question as to whether we should we cull grey squirrels in order to protect the reds is an emotive issue - squirrels, regardless of colour, are popular animals and many don't agree with the deliberate killing of such creatures. Pressure groups such as Advocates for Animals are also opposed to a cull, preferring to work towards finding an “ethical and practical long term solution”.

If a cull is not to the general public's liking, what is the answer? Tell us what you think by using the comments form at the bottom of the page to send us your views.

Page first published on Tuesday 4th March 2008
Page last updated on Tuesday 4th August 2009

Your Views

Jade Walker
It is all very well for those of you to say you would never harm a grey squirrel and what right do we have to do so, but wait until you have had grey squirrels ripping up your loft for the past 6 years, EVERY winter, wait until you have paid at least 5 different pest control companies to eradicate the problem, forked out loads of money and still no success as well as paying for countless numbers of handymen to block up any entrances to the loft only for the vermin (because that is what they are) to gnaw their way back in and then see how you feel about it. These 'cuddly creatures' have gnawed through electrical cables, destroyed storage boxes, eaten all my loft insulation and gnawed through water pipes causing my ceiling to collapse under the weight of the water leakage they caused. I am just a 21 year old frustrated homeowner who has exhausted every possible 'humane' way of eradicating these creatures only to feel ripped off by the majority of mainstream pest control companies. I am now resorting to my own method and yes this does mean killing them. This is not through choice, this is out of sheer exhausted options!!

Alan Cameron
As now townie in manchester, I have worked hard to encourage wild birds and creatures to our tiny strip of front garden, and until a decision is made, I will welcome mr and mrs grey cyrille the impact these creature make on young people as they see them is clear to see....like all problems these days it seems to be an either or situation,is it possible to hybridise greys and reds? can we have breeding programmes? lets face it you can buy chip monks down the petshops or chinchillas will these creatures supercede the greys when escapees get established.I would be happy to breed red squirrels and release them into the wild, then perhaps I would get someone to cull my garden visitors. by the way the real word is kill, and I would do it myself however discharging a firearm in or near public places is illegal to a range of 50m so obviously I cannot do it

angus Cairns
no question in my mind that all Grey Squirels within 50 miles of a Red Squirel Habitat should be killed on sight. I am old enough to remember the delightful Reds in the South of England.

Ian Yeoman Derby
There is nothing nicer than looking down my garden each day and seeing wildlife going about its business this includes the grey squirrels i find them cheeky, comical and entertaining, one thing i have noticed is they are territorial and fight each other when defending their food source. and i hsve often wondered how nice it would be to see red squirrels in my garden, i do not remember ever seeing red squirrels in this area even as a child, so i do feel we should be re-introducing the reds but not at the the expence of the greys. maybe the solution is to vaccinate against squirel pox maybe in food form, that would enable us all to do our bit . It would be nice to see them living side by side. But even if there was a cure i dont think they would the greys would still be dominant.

joseph patrick avery
i activly cull the greys,because of the danger to the reds and the fact that they eat the eggs and chicks of small bird in our garden. joe a

I think that we SHOULD cull the greys because I'm in the Scottish borders and the local population is slowly decliming.

Robert Turner
There seems to be quite a diversity of opinion, but the fact that greys do quite a lot of damage AND carry a disease alien to our native squirrels, it is logical to either vaccinate or cull. These invaders were brought in by people who did not know any better, but they are alien to our countryside and therefore should be controlled.

I agree greys should be culled.

Allen Walker
Culling is essential if we are not to lose the reds in very short order. If we are not going to cull them by killing, why not try the approach used with rabies etc by vaccination, or probably better, draw a line across the country and work southwards feeding sterilising or contraceptive feedstuffs to the greys. This should stop the northwards advance of the greys , give the reds a breathing space, and eventually eliminate the greys fairly comprehensively from the south. Then turn attention to north of the above line by kill-cull of the greys in the north. Hopefully by then there would be a cure for the virus in reds and removing it as a vector in greys. There is no time for sentiment, as we do not have a lot of time to play with and it should be action NOW. The problem with hedgehogs in the Western Isles is a case in point.

james hobbs,essex
i like reds and gray squills,how can peple say grays are rats with fluffy tales,then reds must be red rats with fluffy tales,if i catch some one culling a gray it wount be his day,i look forword to sing grays in my garden and would be Very unhappy with someone who killd them.

Peter Hayes
The idea that putting a grey in a sack and then bludgeoning it on the head is humane while drowning it is not is based, I suppose, on the time it takes to die. But accurate bludgeoning of a writhing squirrel is surely quite a skill, might it not take several blows? I think that drowning might be the more humane option.

Reds were in trouble long before the grey squirrel came along. They were being hunted because they were a pest. Reds damage trees and eat birds eggs and fledglings too. There habitat was also and still is being destroyed. They really didn't stand a chance once the greys were introduced. In fact reds from Norway were released into this country to try and boost the population. Which means how many of our reds are native and how many have Norwegian genes. Humans caused the reds decline yet we are now trying to blame the greys. And so what if they are non native. Our domestic animals and pets are. And if you think about it we are an introduced species. Our original home was Africa. Also what about all those pheasants that are released each year. They are non native. Yet this seems to be acceptable. If it is ok to deliberately release one non native species why is it not ok for the grey squirrel to live here. Humans are the biggest destroyers of the environment. The damage grey squirrels inflict is nothing compared to what we do. Yet we don't like to blame ourselves so we make a scapegoat of a creature that can not defend itself. I'm fed up with the arrogance and prejudice out there. It makes my blood run cold reading some of the comments. There are people out there who relish killing things for no reason other than the creature concerned is an inconvenience to you. I'm no fluffy vegetarian either. I know all about nature red in tooth and claw. I've watched wildlife hunt and kill each other and have prepared and eaten wild shot rabbit so I'm not squeamish either. I understand that something has to die for something else to live even plants. What I can not stand is cruelty for the sake of it which is what is happening to the grey squirrel. This is no longer about conservation. There are people out there that have got so obsessed with the destruction of the grey squirrel that they actually revel in the prospect of killing them. Yes we introduced the grey but equally we killed a large number of reds. It might now be an idea to leave alone and let nature take it's course. Sometimes interfering to put something right only worsens the situation.

Scotland Outdoors
We checked with the Grampian Squirrel Group (GSG) who said, "The current recommended way of killing trapped greys is indeed to put them in a sack and give a single blow to the head which kills instantly, alternatively squirrels may be shot in the trap providing the person doing so has sufficient competence and experience. Qualified individuals may also shoot greys. We would never want a squirrel to be drowned as this a prolonged and cruel death and would be considered against the law. Use of spring traps (killing traps), poison, gas or drey poking would not be condoned by GSG. It is most definitely illegal to release a grey squirrel once it has been caught, it must be humanely destroyed. We would welcome records of any sightings of red or grey squirrels on our website www grampiansquirrelgroup.co.uk."

Stephen Edwards
As someone who is actively involved in the control of grey squirrels, I am obviously in favour of culling. Like several other species, the grey does not belong here. Landowners in the late 1800s brought various "exotics" from around the world, and put them into environments which cannot sustain their lifestyles. Sika deer cause terrible damage in forestry, and are hybridising with our native red deer; muntjac are stripping woodlands of ground flora, including some of our own endangered plant species. Our predecessors were somewhat cavalier; check out the big game hunters. All over the world, we are repairing the damage done. Our native red squirrel cannot win the battle for survival on its own. It is probably too late to reverse the problem; all we can do is hold back the invasion into grey free areas. I am also amazed that nobody has picked up on the startling revelation from Alison Drew. Stop drowning your trapped squirrels-IT IS ILLEGAL!!!!!!!!!!!! The Protection of Animals Acts make this an offence. Run your trapped squirrels into a strong sack and give them a sharp blow with a heavy stick.

Peter Carmichael
There seems to be two main arguements for culling grey squirrels:1. They damage trees reducing estate income from timber. Red squirrels also damage trees, but their numbers are small in compaison so it is less of a problem, and ithe damage is largely confined to conifers, which are not so often used for timber, but fibre.2.Reds are native but greys are not. Does this matter in itself? Greys cause more damage to broad leaved woods than reds to readdress the problem we might need to cover more of England in Scots pine forest, how popular would that be in the home counties, yet another foreign invader taking over our native home?Solution: trap Grey squirrels, but instead of culling them dye them red.2.

Red ones are native and grey ones are not. It's like seagulls; they belong at the sea side but now they're taking over town centres. Cull them all, I'd say: rats because we don't want them at all, seagulls where they're a nuisance in towns and villages, grey squirrels where they're not native. Greys also very often cause mayor damage in people's lofts, so even more reason.

nick s
I live by a forest and have only ever seen a red once, but I think it is completely stupid to kill thousands of living animals for the pleasure of seeing a few red squirrels. if you say it is so the read squirrels can live, well shame on you, you will end up killing millions of squirrels fore a few thousand red squirrels.

Bob shank
survival of the fittest. the reds will probably die anyway and being discriminate to grey squirrels is wrong. we introduced them in 1892 to see what would happen. it inset there fault and killing them for our mistake is not the answer. a edible vaccine is the only sane way to deal with the problem.

Gordon Macpherson
Take veterinarian advice re feasibility of cull or hormonal sterilisation of greys, male and female, and implement before the virus mutates and affects the natural red squirrels.

1. Take veterinarian advice re feasibility of cull or hormonal sterilisation of greys, male and female, and implement before the virus mutates and affects the natural red squirrels.

Amy Egerton
I bleieve there is a need for the culling of grey squirrels, although it may not be the nicest of things to think about, at the minute it really is the best chance we have to save OUR reds. Unfortunately science has not yet found a way to fully destroy this horrible disease and although if found, the reds can be treated too many are dieing from it. I can see the ethical and moral issues of culling, but people NEED to see that its our best chance. I personally have not seen a red squirrel since I was a young child. This is a highly important issue which needs to be investigated further. Because of this i have chosen the current problem of squirrel pox to be the topic of my report i am creating as i study biology. Cullers, well done, please keep up the good work.

Rowena Chadwick
Mother nature will take its course. Once we have over run the world too much a disease will come and cut our numbers down. Should we cull humans to prevent this???Or do you think that is going to far because we are supposed to have a higher intelligence. You would think we would, (if we are as intelligent as we are supposed to be) we would stop using all the natural resources of this poor planet and use renewable ones and yet we continue. If we are all so worried about saving lives shouldn't we be concerned about saving everyone's habitat first then move on to individual species.

Douglas Dagg
I had, in the end, a boring task of disposing of 18 grey squirrels over a period of ten days. This is from a small walled garden one mile from House of Commons, London.Now we have to put up with sweet songbirds wakening us just before dawn.D'ye ken?

"Brave enough to do it?" Killing a squirrel is brave? I wish the squirrels were 6' tall and you were trying to kill them. I suppose that might be more "brave". And as for the argument that they're not originally from here and therefore they should be killed? Ummm, I'm seeing all kind of flaws in this argument if you extend it a just little and consider other species ... Never mind, I'm just going to pop out and fill out squirrel feeder, and I'm not fussed whether a red or a grey stops past for something to eat. But, if I catch any of you trying to hurt them. Well, you'd better actually be 'brave' after all.

stuart robb
so in 20 years when theres not a red to be seen what do i say to my kids .cull the grays and get back to what the countryside should be

Chris Harper
Every effort should be made to eradicate the disease, if that means culling the greys, so be it. It would be truly wonderful to see the return of the red squirrel in the remnant ancient oak woods here in Snowdonia!

Alison Drew
Dear Mr P godley - perhaps you are one of the "cuddly bear brigade" my neighbour in West Yorkshire refers to who cannot bring themselves to cull any wild animal and that is why you presume that I am inhumane. Whatever I am, I am certainly not that. I have even released the odd few grey squirrels we have caught in our trap instead of drowning them. However inhumane you thing drowning them is, surely it is less inhumane than letting the red squirrels die a horrible death by squirrel pox at the expense of keeping a few thousand "cuddly grey squirrels" alive that are not even native to this country??!! Thank goodness for common sense people like Crystal Anderson. I can understand completely why people think it is cruel to kill a wild animal. But in this particular case I can't see how anyone could argue that it does not have to be done - by whoever is brave enough to do it.

Crystal Anderson
In response to Mr Dempster. Speaking as someone who has helped kill and butcher the beef she eats, you are right: we live in a society where most people could not bring themselves do what they are asking others to do and personally kill an animal, whether it be for the meat they eat or to stop an animal that is causing the decimation of a native species. Does that truly mean these people veto their right to ask others to kill the grey squirrels? I do not think so. I do see the moral argument you refer to, which is 'do not ask others to do that which you, yourself, refuse to do', and I, perhaps like you, believe that our society would be a better one if people understood what it is to kill the food they eat. However, I am realist enough to accept that our society is not built in this way. Personally, I stongly wish that all people in our society would understand that killing a few animals for the welfare of the remaining population (or in this case, killing a non-native species for the welfare of native species) is preferable than not killing any animals at all. So I ask that you please allow those who know they could not, themselves, kill a grey squirrel to believe that the death of grey squirrels is currently the best way to save the red.

david maclean
Leave the squirrels alone and cull the bankers.

P Godley
"We regularly catch them in a squirrel trap and drown them..." Alison DrewVery humane :(

Okay, firstly being born on the Isle of Wight I have a fondness for the red squirrel. I also am studying biology, and have learnt a great deal about the problems of invasive species. The people who are saying we have no right to try and control the grey squirrel population in hope of saving the red squirrel are crazy! For starters, it was humans who purposely introduced the grey squirrel without realising the potential problems. Had they known they'd reduce the red squirrel population to 140,000, maybe they would have reconsidered. It is the grey squirrel that carries the pox virus, and since the reds are at such risk from it, it is likely they hadn't been in contact with it until the greys arrived. It is humans who have alreasy put the future of the red squirrel at risk, so wiping a small fraction of the global grey population from the UK, isnt going to harm the greys, but will give the reds a chance to recolonise!

John & Lesley Swift
We have Red Squirrels in our garden in Grasmere thanks to the Squirrel Society locally. We are very interested in the Squirrel Feeder which was shown on the programme about Wild Gardens. Can you give us the address so that we can get hold of one?

I have heard that a few reds have been found with a pox resistance here but don't know which part of the country this is. Is this so, and if so is this a good sign?

Alison Drew
Grey squirrel suppporters please get logical - As Alistair Hackston says grey squirrels are imported vermin and nothing but that - rats with bushy tails. They do NOT belong here. The reds DO. The greys are pests and I wholeheartedly support culling them. In our garden in West Yorkshire we regularly catch them in a squirrel trap and drown them without causing harm to any other wildlife in the process. I just wish everyone in our area would do the same. There are too many here for just a handful of households to try to get rid of. Why do the the bird feed suppliers suggest feeding the little perishers, that's what I'd like to know?! Also, does anyone have any suggestions for an environmentally friendly way of disposing of them once they are drowned other than putting them in the rubbish bin?

lee middleton
i"ve got three grey squirrels wot i hand reared from babys in a avery culling is not the answer


Keith Mitchell
What do Advocates for Animals mean by an “ethical and practical long term solution”. Are they going to bring in squirrel social workers? Of course a cull is required!

mitch smith
i personally control grey squirrels via shooting i manage a country estate where trees from all around the world are grown we plant woodlands and hedges and the damage that greys cause to these trees is unbelievable they have destroyed every tree in some woods we have had an on going battle to keep them away but with no success we are trying to help the environment by planting trees and hedges but greys destroy them as fast as we plant them the only way to solve this problem is to keep shooting them it gets the numbers down fast and efficiently if you saw all the damage greys cause allot of you would soon change your views

I was fortunate to see my first red squirrel a few years ago and was stunned by the beauty and colour and the animal. The grey is a poor relation in comparison. Not being native to this island I see no reason to stop a cull. We can't move them like the hedgehogs of Uist, so culling is the only answer.

I think the idea of culling grey squirrel's is a disgrace. There is no actual evidence to prove they pass disease. What right does the council have to decide what animals live and which ones die. SHAME ON YOU ALL !!!!!

Dr D J Driscoll
And I quote, "While details of the method of infection from grey to red remain unclear...", so there is no proof that the disease passes from grey to red. Most likely it passes from red to red because us humans have forced them into ever smaller areas by destroying their natural habitats, making disease endemic in the concentrated populations.

Tom Campbell
Actually, the North American Red and European Red squirrels are separate species. While red and grey squirrells co-exist here in Maine - and I'm watching them raid the bird feeder as I type this - they will probably both have evolved the same resistance to Squirrel Pox, a resistance that the European Reds have not had time to develop and may never have time to develop if the Greys are allowed to spread.

helen duryea
do grey surills build nests in tress? i live in suthern berrkshire county in massachuettes, for the past three to four weeks this one squirell has been taking a bunch of leaves up and down the tree she would take some up ,then come back down ,put some more leaves in her mouth and tak them up the tree.

Favouring one animal against another is always wrong. How far back for 'indigenous' do you go? Grey squirrels have been here for a very long time and are naturalised. Perhaps all human immigrants d descended from Norman times should be culled too? Look at the diseases they carry - colds, flu, measeles, warts etc etc. And their habits are dreadful! ( Of course that would include most of the UK population) Squirrels are small mammals living their own lives. It is insulting in the extreme for both animals to call them rats. Rats are highly intelligent creatures too. In other countries they are revered and quite rightly. It is the height of human arrogance to presume it is OK to control other creatures by killing them or in ay other way. We are just another animal species and should try harder to leave other creatures alone.

Dave Dempster
a great many red squirel lovers want to see the Greys culled but it came down to it, would they have the nerve to stand by their views and carry out the cull personally? ie We all like our beef but not many would resort to, 'Killing the cow'.

Roselette DeWitt
I live in North America Ma and Rhode Island. While I lived in the Berkshires we had tons and tons of red squirels - the Grays are NOT responsible for the demise of the Reds, the Reds unfortunatley have been on their way out - are we to kill every non British established animal - I love the cute little Reds but I will not kill a gray - let them work it out on their own - Britain has gone kill happy on animals - if reds and grays can live together in Massachusettes then they can live in Scotland!

The problem is not grey or red it is the pox! Geezpay attention!

it worked for us with the cull on rabbits so why not do the same for the greys cull them to stop the decease, after all they cull baby seals for nothing

morgan imrie
i love squirlls

Claudia Pleass
Rats with fluffy tails that wreck birds nests and can kill trees with their drays, if I understand correctly. Grey squirrels should get a bad press and become everyone's enemy. Vermin.

Ms Macleod
I do think we should do everything possible to stop the greys and if that includes a cull then so be it. We must save our reds, we must not waste time because ther it will be very difficult once the greys get in. I have been involved in a small way to stop the greys getting through but at the end of the day they must be stopped.

Catherine Mackay
It would be best to find an "ethical and practical long term solution"; but in case that solution comes too late for our indigenous reds, I think a cull should be carried out on the greys who are, after all, classed as vermin. By whatever means they reduce the red population in the areas they start to populate.

P Cliffe
Greys are simply not supposed to be here, and I see no logical reason for there not to be a cull. the 'fluffy' brigade will no doubt protest, but would they rather see a red die in slow agony, or even worse have a future with no reds?

The red squirrels are such evolutionary losers in every aspect of the squirreling job - How can anyone argue for their survival?

Alistair Hackston
I would support a cull of grey squirrels. These are imported vermin.

Elspeth Sinclair
I myself nor my children, have ever seen a red squirrel in the flesh, only a stuffed one at Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.This really is an unbelievable situation for a native animal to be in. I think grey squirrels should be culled to preserve the native reds. After all, greys are basically just like "rats with bushy tails" and don't actually belong here.If nothing is done, we may lose the red squirrels altogether. That would not only be tragic but unacceptable.

Bill Gray
The greys are less fearful of people than the reds and until people stop feeding them as they do in Kelvin Grove the reds have no chance. An edible vaccine is urgently required.

Andrew Wilson
If there is no immediate vaccine or other remedy available then a culling programme is necessary to protect our native red squirrel population. Sterilisation of greys should also be considered to protect red's homelands and halt the spread of the grey population.

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