Red squirrels are under growing threat from the human population and its pets in the mammals’ few remaining British strongholds, wildlife experts have warned.
Road traffic accidents, attacks by domestic dogs and cats and a cat-related parasitic disease account for three in five deaths examined in postmortems over 10 years. On the Isle of Wight, a sixth of all fatalities can be blamed on the toxoplasma parasite.
Rat traps, rat bait poisoning and electrocution are among other human-related causes reported in a provisional paper in the open access BMC Veterinary Research. It also describes previously unrecognised diseases, including four cancers, in red squirrels, which have been under increasing pressure from greys, introduced from America in the 19th century, and squirrelpox, a virus greys can carry without symptoms.
Vic Simpson, a co-author of the paper, who has been a vet for more than over 40 years and runs the private Wildlife Veterinary Centre in Cornwall, said: “If we keep on saying ‘OK, we need more housing for more people’, that means more cats, that means reduced habitat (for squirrels). There will come a point where it will just not carry red squirrels.”
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