A NEW outbreak of a deadly pox virus is threatening the county’s dwindling red squirrel population.

Flakebridge and Lowther Caravan Park, near Shap, are among 12 places where the virus has been confirmed in Cumbria so far in 2010.

“It does seem pretty bad this year,” said Simon O’Hare, conservation officer with Cumbria Wildlife Trust project Save Our Squirrels. “Over the last few years there’s been a steady stream of cases but there’s been a lot of them recently.

“I think possibly the bad weather has had something to do with it. It means more squirrels have to travel further to find food, which could mean grey squirrels going into red areas to find some.

“Greys go into red areas and transmit the virus at the source when they eat at squirrel feeders. Once the virus is in the local population, it passes quickly from red to red.”

Grey squirrels carry the virus, but it does not affect them. However, the pox leaves reds feeling lethargic and liable to infection from open wounds, which start around the eyes but eventually spread throughout the body.

“We’re all a bit worried about the number of cases we have had confirmed,” said Richard Dyke, secretary of the Penrith and District Red Squirrel Group.

“We’ve all been surprised by how many have happened at once and it can be very distressing. It’s really upsetting for the holiday makers at Lowther Caravan Park because they all feed them and are very attached to their red squirrels.

“All we can say is that Lowther Caravan Park is part of the buffer zone of the Whinfell Forest red squirrel reserve. Jerry Moss is a ranger around there, and it is his job to look after the area. If he can keep on top of the grey squirrels encroaching into the area then all will be well and the park should get red squirrels back hopefully later this year.

“There’s always the worry that this virus will spread but it’s not all doom and gloom. This virus comes and goes and it pops up in areas now and again, although it has come about in areas we wouldn’t normally expect it to. But we are pretty confident if we can just keep on top of the situation then all will be well.

“The message we want to get out is for people to be vigilant and we would ask all members of the public, particularly people who feed red squirrels, to look out for signs of the virus, and to obviously watch out for grey squirrels.”

As a precaution, Mr Dyke also advised squirrel lovers to keep their feeders clean by regularly disinfecting them to try to avoid the virus spreading further.

The fresh outbreak of the virus will also be monitored by Gary Murphy, who has been appointed as a red squirrel ranger for the Upper Eden Valley down to Tebay.

For more information, go to www.penrithredsquirrels.org.uk.