FEARS of a squirrel pox crisis are growing after a second death in a small North colony of reds. Grey squirrels which carry the deadly virus have infiltrated the area around Ponteland where reds have been established for many years.
The discovery of a second victim in the colony near Darras Hall has heightened fears.
Sally Hardy, chair of the volunteer protection group Ponteland Red Squirrels, said: “It is quite desperate now. Greys have been seen in the area, sightings of reds are about 20% down this year, and we now have this second death.
“This red was seen poorly last week in a garden and what we think is the same one has now been found dead in one of the cul-de-sacs.
“It has been sent, like the first dead red, for analysis but we are sure it is another case of the squirrel pox virus.”
Victim squirrels develop facial lesions and sores and move sluggishly.
Greys carry the highly contagious virus but are immune to it and pass it on to the more vulnerable reds, for which it usually proves fatal after up to two weeks of suffering.
The group is now considering a special autumn survey of the Ponteland reds colony to assess numbers and possible damage.
Normally only a spring survey is carried out but Sally said: “An extra survey could be worthwhile in the circumstances.
“I have spoken to other members of Ponteland Red Squirrels and suggested we put some leaflets out to say we could have a new survey, possibly over a full week, and plot them on the map.
“We are very concerned at the situation – we are not seeing the usual numbers of reds, although we did have a couple of sightings in Darras Hall this week.
“Seeing fewer reds is a bad sign, and scientists say only 10% of pox-ridden dead squirrels are found, as they get eaten by predators before being discovered.”
The once-thriving reds colony extends to Ponteland golf course and is fed by neighbouring householders.
But the colony was badly hit by the pox last year and after apparently making a good recovery, a repeat is threatened.
The two dead reds found at Ponteland have been sent to the veterinary labs at Penrith, Cumbria.
“We need to spread the net to catch the greys,” added Sally. “We are desperate to do so, and for people to report sighting of greys. At this time of year we normally see lots of reds collecting nuts as food for the winter, but we are seeing far less of them and that is a real worry.”