1. This paper explores the concept of the critical community size for persistence of infection in wildlife populations. We use as a case study the 1988 epidemic of phocine distemper virus in the North Sea population of harbour seals, Phoca vitulina.
2. We summarize the available data on this epidemic and use it to parameterize a stochastic compartmental model for an infection spreading through a spatial array of patches coupled by nearest-neighbour mixing, with replacement of susceptibles occurring as a discrete annual event.
3. A combination of analytical and simulation techniques is used to show that the high levels of transmission between different seal subpopulations, combined with the small annual birth cohort, act to make persistence of infection impossible in this harbour seal population at realistic population levels. The well known mechanisms by which metapopulation structures may act to promote persistence can be seen to have an effect only at weaker levels of spatial coupling, and higher levels of host recruitment, than those empirically observed.