Northern Ireland

Squirrel pox: Environmentalists hope Tollymore outbreak will not have big impact on red squirrel population

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Media captionBBC News NI's environment correspondent Conor Macauley reports on the red squirrel population in Tollymore Forest

Environmentalists hope a deadly squirrel disease that almost wiped out an important colony of native red squirrels five years ago may not have as big an impact this time.

The squirrel pox outbreak in Tollymore Forest five years ago killed about 80% of the 100-strong population.

At Easter, another outbreak was confirmed in the County Down forest.

But, so far, it does not appear to have taken hold as it did in 2011.

Tollymore is one of the strongholds of the native species in Northern Ireland.

Territory

Only three cases have been reported out of a population of about 70 red squirrels three weeks after the disease broke out in the forest.

The disease is spread from non-native grey squirrels, which are carriers of the virus but do not die from it.

Image caption It's believed the last outbreak has built up a degree of resistance in Tollymore's red squirrels

It is believed the virus is transferred by fleas and ticks, saliva, faeces and the scent squirrels use to mark their territory.

Experts have said there may be a degree of resistance in the reds this time thanks to the ones that survived the last outbreak.

It is also believed the wet spring weather may have helped by washing the virus away before it can be spread.

Grey squirrels in the area are also culled to help protect the reds.

The last outbreak of the disease lasted for about 10 weeks.

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