Scientists from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne's School of Biology have found that small number of red squirrels found in Cumbria, North West England, have a unique genetic make-up which sets them aside from those found in other areas of Britain and the continent.
But probably less than a thousand of these animals still survive and are dwindling in number due to an invasion by the American grey squirrel, which out-competes reds for food and passes on a deadly pox virus which can kill reds within two weeks.
Although Cumbria is benefiting from a red squirrel conservation programme, researchers say this may not be enough, and argue that these animals should be included in a captive breeding programme as an additional measure to ensure the animals survive.
The Cumbrian red squirrels could represent the last surviving members of an originally described subspecies for Britain, although other populations may exist in Scotland.
It is important they survive because previous research has suggested that more genetically diverse a species is, the less likely it is to become extinct.
The Newcastle University research team, who analysed squirrel hides from Holland, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK, publish their report in the current edition of the academic journal Conservation Genetics *.
Cumbria, along with North East England and parts of Scotland, is one of the last strongholds of the red squirrel in the UK. Populations of the species are declining nationally, mainly due to the continued spread of the grey squirrel.
Conservationists are working with landowners in Cumbria to introduce a series of refuges to red squirrel areas, which involves shaping a friendly environment for the animals within the local landscape.