CHIEFS at the National Trust are urging 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 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.
As red squirrels begin gathering food for winter, the Trust is urging visitors to protect wildlife by taking their litter home.
The squirrel pox virus can spread through shared food sources between red and grey squirrels – and visitor photos show a red squirrel at Formby carrying plastic food carton to its nest.
Kate Martin, area ranger at National Trust Formby said: “We all know that litter is a huge problem for our environment but we are 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 to 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.
While visitors could feed squirrels in the past, Rangers found that this encouraged the squirrels to 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.
The Rangers at Formby are also reminding the public if they find a sick red squirrel to report it at www.lancswt.org.uk/our-work/projects/red-squirrel-conservation