Liverpool research to save red squirrels

Dr Hannah Levis, Reader in Ophthalmic Bioengineering, Eye & Vision Sciences

Liverpool, UK – 1 October 2009: Pioneering new research by the University of Liverpool which could ensure the long term survival of red squirrels in the UK is set to start today at one of the animal’s traditional strongholds at Formby, a site managed by the National Trust.

A recent outbreak of squirrelpox virus at Formby in Merseyside means that researchers will be able to study the dynamics of the disease as it continues to affect the red squirrels there and elsewhere along the Sefton coast.

Numbers of red squirrels have fallen by 90 per cent in some parts of the area since a major outbreak of squirrelpox virus began in November 2007 [1]. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that numbers of red squirrels have stabilised and further monitoring work will be carried out in the pine woodland during the autumn to establish current red squirrel densities and the status of the survivors.

Work on this four-year project will be co-ordinated by a PhD student based at the University of Liverpool under the supervision of Dr Julian Chantrey and Professor Mike Begon. 

Andrew Brockbank, National Trust Property Manager at Formby, said: “Red squirrels would feature on many people’s list of favourite British wildlife and we hope that this exciting new project may help secure their future. 

“The recent major outbreak of squirrelpox presents a unique window of opportunity for research and the tragic loss of red squirrels at Formby could ultimately provide insights which help red squirrel conservation in the future.”

By careful monitoring and repeated visits to the squirrels in and around Formby, this research will focus on exactly how the red squirrels become infected by the virus, and whether any of them have survived or shows signs of immunity to the disease [2].   

The project will also examine how fast the infection progresses and what might halt its spread.  This will enable conservationists to be better equipped to understand how an outbreak of squirrelpox virus develops and what can be done to break the links that allow it to spread among the red squirrels.

Funding for the four year studentship is being provided by the Natural Environment Research Council.  Further financial support has come through money raised from virtual gifts in the 2007 National Trust Christmas catalogue specifically for red squirrel conservation at Formby.

Professor Mike Begon from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Liverpool said: “Formby is on the front line in the battle for survival between red and grey squirrels.  We are hopeful that this new research will help us understand the dynamics of squirrelpox virus and how that knowledge can be used to ensure the long term survival of red squirrels across the UK.”

Notes to editors:

“¢ [1] Numbers of red squirrels on the Sefton coast have fallen from 1,000 to 100 in the last two years, as a result of the spread of squirrelpox virus.  At Formby numbers dropped from 200 to an estimated 20.

“¢ [2] The study will also seek to clarify the role in transmission to red squirrels of grey squirrels, which carry the virus but are not affected by it.  Ultimately, the aim is to prevent further spread of squirrelpox and even aid recovery of populations following an outbreak.

“¢ Once found throughout most of the UK, the distribution of red squirrels has declined dramatically in the last 100 years with the break-up of their woodland habitats and the spread of the larger, more dominant North American grey squirrel. As a result, red squirrels have only a few remaining habitats – mostly the coniferous forests of Scotland, Wales and Northern England. There are around 160,000 red squirrels left in the UK compared to 2.5 million grey squirrels.

“¢ The University of Liverpool is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive institutions in the UK. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than £93 million annually.

“¢ The National Trust is one of the most important nature conservation organisations in Europe with over 1,000 properties covering 250,000 hectares, including coastal sites, woodland and upland areas; many of which are rich in wildlife.  All 17 species of UK bat have been recorded as roosting or breeding on National Trust land and 96 per cent of all resident UK butterflies can be found on our land.  Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire is our most species rich site and 93 per cent of our land has been surveyed for its nature conservation importance.

“¢ The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funds world-class science, in universities and its own research centres, that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It is tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. NERC receives around £400m a year from the UK government’s science budget, which is used to provide independent research and training in the environmental sciences.

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