A horrible comma in conservation


The horrible comma in conservation…

Let’s take you back to 1997. Fewer than 40 red squirrels remained in a small area of woodland on Anglesey and approximately 3000 grey squirrels were ruling the island with an iron, if a little fury, fist. It was a bleak future for the red squirrel that would have undoubtedly become locally extinct if conservations hadn’t intervened. Luckily for us, there were some people passionate about our native squirrel and so formed the ‘Friends of Anglesey’s red squirrels’. You’ve probably heard the story a thousand times but for those that haven’t just know that the project was a complete success, with Anglesey now being classified as free of grey squirrels and being the home of approximately 700 red squirrels!!

”FANTASTIC!! What a success I’m so glad our red squirrels are finally safe here on
Anglesey.” some of you might be thinking.

Unfortunately this is not a ‘full stop’ story; there is a horrendous comma looming.

So, where are we with red squirrel conservation on Anglesey? On the whole our red heads are doing well; they still have a number of problems that every wild animal has to deal with: habitat loss; availability of food; habitat fragmentation and traffic incidents to name a few. But a new potential threat has emerged in recent months. This threat has been known before in some red squirrel populations, however, this is the first known case of it in Gwynedd.

Adenovirus has been found in a number of red squirrels along the Menai Straits, with one report of 6 dead red squirrels in a garden and surrounding area. Adenovirus has been identified as a threat relatively recently and its impact on wild populations is still not fully understood. It is an enteric virus, therefore red squirrels show no outward signs of the disease. It is only picked up via autopsy of the dead animals when internal organs are found to be rotting. Dr Shuttleworth, Director of the trust, has said the disease could be carried by other animals, such as wood mice, that may be passing it to the red squirrel population.
“Some animals carry it and don’t show any symptoms and it may not affect them, but they spread it to other animals who then die from it,” he explained. This includes squirrel to squirrel infection, so some red squirrels have tested positive for the infection however, it has not led to disease – meaning they are immune to the disease? Or maybe the infection requires a trigger to cause disease?
So far adenovirus has only been found in clusters, meaning it might not have the potential to infect an entire island such as Anglesey. Dr Shuttleworth has said “We’re hopeful it won’t spread widely and affect the whole island.”
Unfortunately, there has been another bombshell, a red found dead in Bangor has also tested positive for adenovirus. Meaning that infection has potentially spread across to the mainland.
Movement of grey squirrels back and forth over the bridges or swimming across the Menai Straits (yes, squirrels do swim), has always been a threat to the red squirrels on Anglesey. Nowadays, if a grey were to venture onto the island, it would only be a short time before it is caught, thanks to a group of fantastic volunteers. Red squirrels on the other hand are free to move back and forth as they please, now this might not happen very often – why risk swimming the strait or getting run over by a car when you have a lovely forest where you are? But it only takes one infected red squirrel to cross the strait and spread harmful diseases, with greys still being in Bangor the threat of squirrel pox for Anglesey reds is still there.
And its not just Adenovirus and Squirrel pox that are a threat! Rotavirus found in two dead red squirrels in Llangefni is a first for Wales and there has only been a handful of cases of this disease throughout Britain. The find of rotavirus in 2 Anglesey red squirrels raises a lot of questions, questions that can only be answered with copious amounts of research.
So, what can we do? The big picture for the next 3 years is to make the city of Bangor and the surrounding 90km2 of coastal plain and mountain valley, grey squirrel-free, thereby creating a buffer zone around the Menai Straits, which should lead to a lower risk of infection. However, whilst this plan is in action, it is essential to test any deceased red squirrels found, for infection markers. This process can be costly, however it gives us invaluable information about the state of our red squirrel population and will allow us to put measures in place to prevent a disease outbreak. Currently we are raising funds so that we can test any dead reds thereby securing the future of our population on Anglesey and Gwynedd.
On the 12th of December we held an evening talk all about these infections that have been found and what it might mean for the squirrel population on Anglesey and the surrounding area. On the night we raised just over £220, all of this will go towards the cost of testing dead squirrels for infections. Not only did we raise lots of money for The Red Squirrels Trust Wales, we raised the profile of the red squirrel and informed local people in how they can help minimise the threat of infection. Education of the people that see the red squirrels day in day out is a really important step in securing a ginger future here on Anglesey. Many thanks to all those that attended and a big thanks to the local businesses that very kindly donated raffle prizes: Pili palace, Welsh mountain Zoo, Anglesey Sea Zoo, The Bulkeley Hotel, Tre-Ysgawen Hall Hotel, Chateau Rhianfa, The Red Boat Ice cream parlour, Waitrose, Tesco and private donations.
If you find a dead red squirrel on Anglesey or on the mainland within Gwynedd, please contact either myself on 07397953543 or Dr Craig Shuttleworth on 07966150847. If bodies can be picked up (using a plastic bag or gloves), we are happy to come and collect from any local address. We will subsequently let people who have collected animals know the results of post mortems.

Photo Credit: Philip Snow