Maths academic leads fight to protect the red squirrel



A Heriot-Watt academic is using mathematical modelling to help protect red squirrels from the spread of a deadly virus in southern Scotland.

For the past five years maths has played a significant part in the battle across central and southern Scotland.

Squirrelpox - which is carried by grey squirrels but is deadly only to reds - first arrived in the area in 2005.

Now mathematical models, combined with satellite maps of forests and habitats, have been helping to maximise the success of conservation efforts.

The approach has pioneered by Professor Andy White and his team working with Saving Scotland's Red Squirrels.

They have helped to assess the risk of the spread of squirrelpox in Scotland, the effectiveness of grey squirrel control operations and the likely spread of grey squirrels further north.

They found that action being taken by conservation groups to reduce grey squirrel density was helping to reduce the risk of spread.

Professor White said: “The model showed that squirrelpox can spread through established, high density, grey squirrel populations in southern Scotland.

"This matched the field observations on the spread of the disease from 2007 onwards in Scotland.

"The model showed that it would be hard to prevent the spread of squirrelpox in southern and central Scotland as the habitat that grey squirrels occupy is well connected."

However, the disease would struggle to spread beyond central Scotland as the habitat and established grey squirrel populations elsewhere were less well connected.

Professor White added: “This seems like bad news for the reds in southern and central Scotland.

"But the model also highlighted that squirrelpox is unlikely to spread through established red squirrel populations."

The maths academic also suggests that any outbreaks in the red squirrel population would be limited to the interface where red and grey squirrels meet.

He said that meant that although some red squirrels might be killed by the pox it would eventually "fade out" without spreading beyond a local infection.

Modelling has suggested that could be good news for long-term survival.

"So, squirrelpox may have less impact in Scotland than it had when greys expanded through England," said Prof White.

"The red squirrel strongholds in southern Scotland should be able to 'live with squirrelpox' without significant impacts to reds."