Deadly rabbit virus could be killing region's hares, researchers say
PUBLISHED: 10:51 25 January 2019 | UPDATED: 10:57 25 January 2019
First case of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus detected in hare found near Braintree in north Essex.
Suspending the hunting of hares could be one way to help the animal population to recover from a series of set-backs, a leading researcher has suggested.
Dr Diana Bell, a conservation biologist at the University of East Anglia (UEA), made the comments after it was discovered that a deadly rabbit disease has jumped across to hares for the first time.
The first UK cases of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2) in dead hares were detected in two locations – one case near Braintree in north Essex and two cases near Bridport in Dorset.
The breakthrough discovery was made after reports of a high number of sick and dead hares being found across the region last autumn. This led to researchers from UEA joining forces with Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex Wildlife Trusts, the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) Surveillance Intelligence Unit to investigate the cause of the deaths.
Dr Bell, who specialises in rabbit and hare diseases, said: “RHDV2 normally affects rabbits, but the disease is known to have jumped to European brown hares in Italy, Spain, France and Australia. This is the first time that RHDV2 has been found in hares in the UK.
“RHDV2 is one of several pathogens we are finding in dead hares and it is too early to say which is currently the primary cause of the hare die-off. We are continuing to investigate other causes for the deaths.”
She said scientists carrying out autopsies had discovered some of the deaths had also been caused by European Brown Hare Syndrome and coccidiosis - a disease that affects hare’s intestines. The fact that the hares with RHDV2 were found in different locations of the UK quite a distance apart suggests that the virus has spread widely, Dr Bell added.
RHDV2, which is believed to have originated in large commercial rabbit farms in China and on the Continent, is credited with having already decimated the wild rabbit population in East Anglia and across the country - the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) recording a 61% drop in rabbit numbers across the UK between 1995 and 2016 although it says “the drivers behind this decline are unknown”.
In the Brecks on the Norfolk/Suffolk border rabbit numbers have declined so drastically that Natural England is overseeing a project to enhance the habitat of those rabbits that have survived to encourage them to recover.
Whether RHDV2 could cause a similar die-off in the hare population remains to be seen.
The virus causes a lethargy in its victims meaning the majority of rabbits die in their burrows but because hares live above ground, any deaths are more visible. Concerns about new diseases were raised after landowners, farmers and other members of the public started reporting sightings of obviously sick and dead hares in September 2018.
Members of the public were urged to photograph sick and dying hares and, most importantly, collect the bodies for autopsy so that the impact of new and existing diseases on hare populations could be determined.
Dr Bell said: “We are enormously grateful for the continuing tremendous response from the British public in reporting dead hares to us and helping us collect them for post mortems. This is good example of citizen science.
“Hare deaths are still being reported to us and we are still collecting the bodies to test for RHDV2 and other pathogens that could be contributing to the decline.”
The spate of hare deaths is a set-back for a species already under pressure. Nationally, brown hares have experienced a decline of more than 80% over the past century caused mainly by the intensification of agricultural farming practices, which has limited their supply of food and habitat.
Dr Bell suggested that considering this long-term trend, the current spate of deaths, as well as others factors impacting hares, such as the cruel so-called sport of hare coursing, that one option might be to suspend shooting hares for a time so the population can recover. Currently, hares are the only game species in Britain without any closed season for shooting, which means they can be shot all year round.
She said: “We are the only country that has an open season on hares - I think it is something that needs to be discussed because we need to look after our hares.
“A number of estates have voluntarily put a no shooting policy in place for hares because they are aware of the die-offs. We’ve been contacted by lots of different people concerned about this issue including gamekeepers, Wildlife Trusts, farmers and hunters.
“We need to put hares in cotton wool for a while.”