Earlier this year we announced that some of the red squirrels on Brownsea Island, Dorset, are suffering from leprosy. The island, which we manage in partnership with Dorset Wildlife Trust, is home to around 200 red squirrels.
We are working with researchers from the University of Edinburgh to better understand the disease and its impact upon the island’s wildlife.
Conservation vet and researcher Anna Schilling will spend the next three years studying leprosy in red squirrels. Based at the University of Edinburgh, we are part-sponsoring her PhD along with Dorset Wildlife Trust. We asked her five questions about her project.
What are you doing? How do you test the squirrels for leprosy?
Leprosy can have clear signs: the ears are puffy and there can be swelling in the face. But some squirrels might not show any symptoms – whilst others could be carriers of the disease.
We have been trapping red squirrels on the island. We put the animals under general anaesthesic and take blood, skin and hair samples. The process doesn’t harm the squirrels. All the squirrels are released back into the wild, except where the animal will suffer and is likely to die.
Brownsea is the perfect place to carry out this research, with a contained population of red squirrels.
What will this research tell us? How will it change how rangers manage the island?
It’s just too early to say. But the research may well have implications for conservation organisations. We need to understand more about how the disease is transferred between squirrels and other animals.
Why did you want to work on red squirrel leprosy?
What we’re doing on Brownsea Island is ground breaking science. Red squirrels are essential to the ecosystems to which they belong. The disease – and the study – has far reaching implications for the squirrels.
Should people be worried about squirrel leprosy?
No. There is no risk to visitors. From looking at old pictures of red squirrels on Brownsea, the disease has been on the island for at least forty years. In forty years not a single person on the island has had any symptoms of the disease.
Why are we only just finding out about the disease now?
No one looked for leprosy in red squirrels before. If you don’t look for something, you can’t find it!
Find out more on BBC Autumnwatch tonight, 8pm on BBC2.