A study by the University of Liverpool has found that the red squirrel population along the Sefton coastline appears to be recovering from a serious outbreak of squirrelpox in 2008.
Researchers from the University, in collaboration with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, have been monitoring the red squirrel population at the Seaforth Coastal reserve since the outbreak which resulted in an 85% fall in the red squirrel population.
Squirrel pox is a potentially fatal disease which affects red squirrel populations in some areas and is thought that to be a significant factor in the decline of the red squirrel population in the UK. The virus is often carried by grey squirrels from North America, which rarely die from the disease as their population has developed immunity having been exposed to the virus for many years.
Dr Julian Chantrey, from the University's Institute of Integrative Biology, said: "We have had a unique opportunity to study the dynamics of the squirrelpox disease. So far, our findings indicate that they are recovering from the disease which affected them so severely in 2008.
"There are even indications that a few of the surviving squirrels appear to have antibody to the virus, which would suggest that they have recovered from infection in the past. More recently, we have identified a red squirrel that recovered naturally from squirrelpox and was released back into the population. However, at this stage, there is insufficient evidence to say whether there is significant resistance in the population as a whole to prevent another pox outbreak."
Andrew Brockbank, Countryside Manager for the National Trust in Formby, said: "Red squirrels would feature on many people's list of favourite British wildlife and it's been a huge relief to see the numbers recovering at Formby in the last five years after the 2007/8 crash.
"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 at Formby than we had thought possible just a few years ago."
Funding for the research has been 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
Notes to editors:
1. 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.
2. As red squirrel numbers dwindle National Trust sites with red squirrel populations are becoming increasingly important havens. These include Formby on the Sefton Coast, the Lake District, Brownsea Island in Dorset, Wallington in Northumberland, Crom Estate and Florence Court in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart, Co Down, Northern Ireland, and Newtown and the Mottistone estate on the Isle of Wight. Visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk for details.
3. The University of Liverpool is one of the UK's leading research institutions with an annual turnover of £420 million, including £150 million for research. Liverpool is ranked in the top 1% of higher education institutions worldwide and is a member of the Russell Group. Visit http://www.liv.ac.uk or follow us on twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/livuninews
4. 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. Find out more at: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/nature
5. In 2005, Formby and the Sefton Coast woodlands became part of the third National Red Squirrel Refuge. A 5 km 'buffer zone' was set up in an attempt to stop the movement of grey squirrels into the refuge area.