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Plea to help protect red squirrels as National Trust warns discarded litter could lead to squirrel pox outbreak

The National Trust is urging its visitors to help protect endangered red squirrels from a deadly disease by taking their litter home with them, after one of the protected animals was photographed taking a plastic food carton to its nest at Formby, Merseyside.

As the charity marks Red Squirrel Awareness Week, Trust rangers are warning that dropped packaging and food could lead to the spread of squirrel pox – a disease which wiped out 80% of red squirrels in one its last strongholds in 2008.

The coastal site of Formby sits within the North Merseyside and West Lancashire Red Squirrel Stronghold, one of only a few refuges left for red squirrels across the UK.

It is also a popular destination for visitors looking to enjoy its five hundred acres of beach, sand dunes and pine woodland.

Beauty spots across the UK have reported large numbers of visitors this year, leading in many places to an increase in litter being left behind.

“Of course, we all know that litter is a huge problem for our environment,” said Kate Martin, Area Ranger at National Trust Formby, “but we’re especially concerned at the impact it can have on our wildlife.”

“Autumn is a particularly active time for Formby’s red squirrel population. It is part of their nature to forage for food to store in preparation for winter.”

“If they are collecting food packaging dropped by visitors, that could really affect our ability to restrict the spread of squirrel pox.”

Squirrel pox is a deadly disease that was introduced in the nineteenth century when the Victorians brought the North American grey squirrel to Britain. Unlike their red counterparts, grey squirrels are unaffected by the disease.

In 2008, a devastating outbreak of squirrel pox wiped out 80% of the red squirrel population in North Merseyside and West Lancashire.

Since then, through a partnership between the National Trust, the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and others, the area’s red squirrels have nearly recovered to their pre-outbreak numbers.

However, red squirrels are still an endangered species and require constant monitoring to prevent any further spread of squirrel pox.

Kate continued: “The best thing our visitors can do to help us protect our much-loved red squirrels is to avoid feeding them or leaving any litter, especially litter that may contain food.”

While visitors could feed the squirrels in the past, the rangers found that this behaviour encouraged the squirrels to group together and come into more contact with each other, increasing the risk of spreading infection. Squirrels are also susceptible to diseases caused by bacteria humans carry on our skin.

“It’s important to remember that the woodland at Formby is full of food for the squirrels to forage, including berries, lichen, fungi and pine cones. With the help of our visitors, we can continue to look after this habitat and see our red squirrel population thrive once again.”

The rangers at Formby are also reminding the public to tell a member of the team if they find a sick red squirrel while visiting the National Trust site. If a sick or dead red squirrel is found in the local area, the public should not bring it the National Trust, but should report it to the Lancashire Wildlife Trust by visiting: www.lancswt.org.uk/our-work/projects/red-squirrel-conservation

Header image: Andrew Lakin.