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Liverpool research to save red squirrels

Health News from Liverpool, England (UK).

Help is needed to save the beautiful red squirrels living along Mersyside's Sefton Coast:
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

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% in some parts of the area since a major outbreak of squirrelpox virus began in November 2007.

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.

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.”



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