Anglesey, Ynys Môn, is synonymous with the Welsh red squirrel. The island contains the largest and most genetically diverse red squirrel population in Wales. Perhaps two-thirds of the national population make it their home. Acrobatic, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed, they have proved popular with local people and visitors alike.
Sadly, venture virtually anywhere else in Wales and red squirrels are either extinct or incredibly rare. The primary reason for their disappearance is the spread of the grey squirrel. This species is native to North America. Adult red squirrels hold their own against the larger greys. Sadly, their offspring find it difficult to survive and few make it to adulthood in the presence of grey squirrels.
To make matters worse, the grey squirrel carries a viral infection; one that does them no harm but which is almost always fatal to the red squirrel. The virus is called squirrelpox (SQPV) and it has decimated our red squirrels. There is no cure.
Once red squirrels are infected, they develop extensive skin lesions. These open sores become infected by bacteria and they prevent the animal from being able to see and feed properly. It takes two weeks for the animals to die. In one recent outbreak in North Wales, 70-80% of the red squirrel population was lost.
A squirrelpox vaccine
Why is there no cure? A research programme at the Moredun Institute in Scotland started to develop a squirrelpox vaccine. Hopes were high and preliminary trials were positive. Sadly, funding to carry on the work ran out.
In 2017, the Director of the UK Squirrel Accord, an umbrella body of 41 conservation and forestry organisations, Government agencies, and companies, with links to voluntary red squirrel conservation groups, stated publicly that they had secured £250,000 of funding to restart research. It was suggested that half the funds had been pledged by UK governments.
So what happened next? Well, it appears that very little happened. In fact, talk of vaccine development virtually ceased. Outbreaks of SQPV, however, continued to affect regional populations in England, Scotland, and Wales. Animals developed symptoms and died, post mortem tests were undertaken, the virus was confirmed as the cause, and the whole sorry process would repeat.
In November 2022, a new case was detected in a red squirrel near Bangor. This was only a few hundred metres from the Menai Suspension Bridge, a route over the Menai Strait and onto the island of Anglesey. If the virus gets onto Anglesey it will result in large numbers of red squirrels dying. A worst case scenario is that the virus moves throughout the south and east of the island over many months.
Through wildlife tourism and visitor stays, the presence of red squirrels on Anglesey contributes £1mn per year to the local economy. Aside from any concern for the squirrels, squirrelpox virus puts that at risk.
Conservationists are urging the Welsh Government to be daring and to take the lead amongst UK administrations in getting vaccine research restarted. A Senedd petition on squirrelpox research has been signed by over 10,600 people in six weeks. At 10,000 signatures, the Senedd generally decides to debate a petition. It therefore appears that the future of the Welsh red squirrel is now firmly in their hands.