The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

Veterinary science helps safeguard red squirrels

Disease surveillance provides key insights into health threats facing iconic species.

Red squirrel. Photo credit Velda McCune
The red squirrel, one of the country’s most iconic and well-loved mammals. Image credit: Velda McCune

A team of veterinary scientists is working to aid efforts to protect the red squirrel population in Scotland.

Experts at the Dick Vet are partnering with conservation and wildlife organisations to collect data on the health of red squirrels and monitor changes in diseases present in their population.

The vet team’s efforts include a dedicated disease surveillance programme that identifies causes of death in the red squirrel population, whose numbers have declined significantly in recent years.

It does so by examining squirrel remains collected by members of the public, veterinary practices, wildlife rangers and conservation officers.

The programme also monitors disease threats and enables early detection of new or emerging diseases that may affect the red squirrel population across the country.

Supporting conservation

This information will help conservation and wildlife organisations direct their efforts and develop strategies to help protect red squirrels, one of the country’s most iconic and well-loved mammals.

It is estimated there are only 140,000 red squirrels remaining in the UK, 75 per cent of which are in Scotland.

Reasons why numbers are declining include loss of natural habitat, and competition for food and living space following the introduction of non-native grey squirrels in the late 1800s. Grey squirrels also carry squirrel pox virus (SPV) which is lethal to reds but not to greys.

Professor Elspeth Milne, a Veterinary Pathologist at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, and her colleagues run the disease surveillance programme for Scottish red squirrels, which was established in 2005. They have conducted more than 700 post-mortem examinations on red squirrel carcasses.

There is no doubt that squirrel pox virus is a serious threat to our native red squirrels in Scotland. However, there are a number of other health conditions, including leprosy, other viruses, and parasites that can also unfortunately result in their death, as well as the threat from road traffic. By offering a disease surveillance service we can build up a picture of the current health threats to Scotland’s red squirrels and identify disease incidence and patterns, which will help inform red squirrel conservation efforts.

Professor Elspeth Milne,Veterinary Pathologist, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

Squirrel pox virus

The group is closely monitoring the prevalence of squirrel pox in red squirrels across Scotland. They have found that the virus is now causing deaths in red squirrels in parts of Scotland that had not seen the disease before, suggesting that the virus is spreading.

Historically, squirrel pox was mostly recognised as a significant threat to red squirrel populations in Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders. However, we are monitoring its spread closely and sharing our findings with conservation groups in Scotland so they can develop plans to stop the spread of this awful disease.

Liam WilsonVeterinary Pathology Resident, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary studies

Scientists at the Dick Vet are also studying the DNA of Scotland’s red squirrels, to understand how it may have changed over time to help the animals adapt to their changing habitat and the presence of grey squirrels.

Related links

Red squirrel health projects at the Dick Vet

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Courses to connect students with campus wildlife


About the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies 

The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is a one-of-a-kind centre of excellence in clinical activity, teaching and research. Our purpose-built campus, set against the backdrop of the beautiful Pentland Hills Regional Park, is home to more than eight hundred staff and almost fourteen hundred students, all of whom contribute to our exceptional community ethos. 

The School comprises: 

The Roslin Institute 

The Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security 

The Roslin Innovation Centre 

The Hospital for Small Animals 

Equine Veterinary Services 

Farm Animal Services 

Easter Bush Pathology 

The Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education 

We represent the largest concentration of animal science-related expertise in Europe, impacting local, regional, national and international communities in terms of economic growth, the provision of clinical services and the advancement of scientific knowledge.