Brownsea Island red squirrel leprosy study

image source, Peter Trimming

A study to find out how a form of leprosy is affecting the UK's threatened red squirrels is to be carried out in Dorset.

The project on Brownsea Island aims to discover how the disease affects and is passed between native red squirrels.

Leprosy was first identified in red squirrels in Scotland in 2014.

Post-mortem examinations have since revealed it is also affecting the mammals on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour and on the Isle of Wight.

image source, National Trust
image captionBrownsea Island is among the few spots in England that red squirrels are still found

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh will work with the National Trust, which manages Brownsea Island, where about 200 red squirrels are found, and Dorset Wildlife Trust, which manages a nature reserve on the island.

Humane traps will be used to capture the squirrels for health checks, blood tests and other clinical samples before they are returned to the wild, researchers said.

Little is known about how the leprosy bacteria, which causes swelling and hair loss to the ears, muzzle and feet, is spread among red squirrels.

image source, Neil Theasby
image captionIntroduced American grey squirrels are a huge threat to native red squirrels

Carrying out the study on an island location will enable researchers to examine the impact of leprosy on the squirrels in a contained environment.

Lead researcher Prof Anna Meredith, from University of Edinburgh, said the disease appeared to have been in squirrel populations in Scotland and England's south coast "for some time", and added the research would aid conservationists in understanding how to control its spread.

The risk to humans from the disease is negligible and Brownsea Island will remain open to the public while the research is carried out, researchers said.

Red squirrel facts:

  • The red squirrel is native to Britain, but its future is threatened by the introduced American grey squirrel - which out-compete their cousins and spread a disease called "squirrel pox" which is fatal to the reds
  • It is estimated that there are 140,000 red squirrels left in the UK - with most of the population in Scotland - in comparison to more than 2.5 million greys
  • They live for about six years and grow to about 36cm-long (14 inches), including their tails
  • Their nests are called dreys and females produce about 2-3 young - called kittens - up to two times a year in the spring and summer

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