Red squirels have developed immunity to the squirrelpox virus, according to EcoHealth, with the survivors now providing hope that a vaccine could save red squirrels from extinction.
Grey squirrels can carry the squirrelpox virus that is lethal to red squirrels, and suffer no ill effects. Grey squirrel populations have increased to just under 3 million in the UK since they were introduced from North America just over 100 years ago.
Red squirrel numbers have fallen to 211,000 (with around 100,000 in Scotland), causing many, Country Life included, to call for an extensive grey squirrel cull.
Tony Sainsbury, from the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, headed the research, which monitored samples taken from 500 squirrels. He discovered some red squirrels that had developed an antibody for the squirrelpox virus.
Mr Sainsbury’s team is now investigating whether the red squirrels’ immunity to the squirrelpox virus might be widespread, and whether it might mean the survival of the red squirrels.