Scouse squirrels resist deadly virus

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 © Twitter/ NTFormby

© Twitter/ NTFormby

Red squirrels at Merseyside’s National Trust reserve have shown signs of resisting a deadly pox virus.

The study, completed by University of Liverpool scientists over four years, found that 10% of the reserve’s squirrels had Squirrel Pox Virus antibodies in their blood.

This suggests that some red squirrels have previously been infected by the virus and survived.

The number of red squirrels in the North of England is on the rise after 140 years of decline. A study produced by the Red Squirrels Northern England group has revealed a 7% increase in numbers since 2012.

Grey squirrels were first introduced to Victorian Britain from North America and have devastated the native red squirrel population. Grey squirrels are larger than red squirrels and can compete for food and habitat more successfully. The Squirrel Pox Virus is passed on from grey squirrels, which, unlike red squirrels show no sign of being infected.

Before the study, researchers were unsure whether any squirrels had survived the pox virus. There is now hope that the antibody can be passed on to future generations and the UK will see a continuous rise in species numbers.

The National Trust countryside manager for Formby, Andrew Brockbank, said: “Whether red squirrels have any long term immunity or not remains to be seen. But the recovery of the population and the findings of the research give us hope that red squirrels have a better chance of survival than we had thought possible just a few years ago.”

The work at protected sites is vital for the red squirrel population to recover. Formby is one of the only protected reserves in the UK where grey squirrels are controlled to protect the reds.

About Harriet Midgley, JMU Journalism