Red squirrels under threat from rare leprosy

Red squirrels are once again under threat. Picture: PA
Red squirrels are once again under threat. Picture: PA
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Scotland’s red squirrels are facing a new threat from a rare disease.

Scientists in Edinburgh say they are suffering from a are form of leprosy.

Six cases caused by a bacteria similar to Mycobacterium lepromatosis have been confirmed in the squirrels since 2006.

Symptoms include hair loss and severe swelling to the snout, eyelids, ears and feet.

Infected animals have been found the length and breadth of the country – from Dumfries and Galloway in the south to the Moray Firth in the north.

It is the first time the disease has been found in the species and little is known about the spread of the potentially fatal disease.

Professor Anna Meredith of the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies at Edinburgh University is leading the research.

She said: “We suspect this disease is more widespread than the six cases we have confirmed.

“Red squirrels are in decline. They are threatened by the grey squirrel and already face the major threat of the squirrelpox virus.

“This is the last thing that they need – another disease which could potentially threaten the population.”

Scientists are urging the public to report sightings of squirrels which they believe may be suffering from the condition.

They hope that by gathering new data they can build a more detailed understanding of the disease.

There is no suggestion of any risk to human health but they advise members of the public to follow basic hygiene rules before and after handling dead squirrels.

Researchers in Edinburgh said dead red squirrels could be sent to them by post provided they were appropriately packaged.