Public response to investigation into mystery hare deaths has been ‘fantastic’, says expert

PUBLISHED: 14:29 11 November 2018 | UPDATED: 14:40 11 November 2018

Brown hares on Havergate Island in Suffolk      Picture: RSPB

Brown hares on Havergate Island in Suffolk Picture: RSPB

University team is “working 18-hour days” to find out cause of spate of hare deaths.

More hares from Havergate  Island      PIC: France CrickmoreMore hares from Havergate Island PIC: France Crickmore

The public response in helping to find the cause of the high number of hare deaths in recent months has been “fantastic” according to the academic at the centre of the investigation.

Dr Diana Bell at the University of East Anglia is one of the country’s leading experts on rabbit disease, who is co-ordinating much of the research into the current spate of hare deaths in the region. Since the start of October, she has been working with Wildlife Trusts from across East Anglia and beyond, calling on people who find dead hares to send details of the location and photographs of the carcasses.

She said: “There has been a huge die-off, not just in this region but across the country and in Scotland and Wales.

“We’ve been inundated with reports and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing - the public response has been fantastic. It’s a good example of citizen science - it’s clear the UK public care passionately about hares.”

Dr Bell said she and her team had been “working 18-hour days” and “working hard to get a full picture of what is going on”.

Dr Diana Bell at the University of East Anglia Photo: Andy DarnellDr Diana Bell at the University of East Anglia Photo: Andy Darnell

She added: “One of my colleagues took a 1,300-mile trip around the country last week picking up the bodies of hares from freezers in different counties from Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Wales, Sussex and Wiltshire.”

READ MORE: What is the mystery disease killing hares in East Anglia?

She said some carcasses were undergoing post mortems and testing at an independent laboratory in Norfolk while a number were also being screened by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) at Defra to find cause of death.

Profile of  a hare at the RSPB site at Havergate IslandProfile of a hare at the RSPB site at Havergate Island

A spokesperson for the Defra said 12 carcasses have been submitted to APHA so far - mostly from Norfolk and Suffolk - and a number of diseases have been recorded, including European Brown Hare Syndrome and coccidiosis - a disease that affects hare’s intestines - but no pattern of one single disease has shown up. But contrary to Dr Bell’s assertions, Defra said that the mortality rate of hares for this year is not abnormal. It also said that no case of myxomatosis in a hare had been identified.

When the news of the hare deaths first became public, there were fears that myxomatosis, a disease that has decimated UK rabbit populations in the past, may have jumped across from the rabbit population to hares.

And Dr Bell believes that further tests are likely to prove this is the case.

“I’ve been studying myxomatosis for 30 years and some of the pictures I’ve been sent of hares with blood coming from their eyes are identical with the symptoms of myxomatosis,” she said

“It might be that we have got more than one virus at one time and different diseases in different animals.”

The hare population on Havergate Island has halved in recent weeks. Picture: Mike PageThe hare population on Havergate Island has halved in recent weeks. Picture: Mike Page

READ MORE: Fears fatal rabbit disease may have jumped across to rabbit population

Dr Bell said she had also been talking to shooting organisations about suspending the shooting of hares this year because of the decrease in numbers.

She added: “I’m not talking about a permanent ban but one that lasts until we know what we are dealing with.”

One location that has seen its hare population plummet is the RSPB reserve at Havergate Island, Suffolk’s only island near Orford that is famous for its hares.

According to site manager for the RSPB on the South Suffolk coast, Aaron Howe, the population has halved in recent weeks.

“We used to have 30 hares but we’ve lost a lot - it’s a sorry tale,” he said.

“They were being found in groups of six or seven individuals - it’s unusual to find them in that concentration. They seemed to succumb pretty quickly and some of the carcasses looked in pretty good condition.”

He added: “The storm surge in 2013 knocked the hare population here down to single figures and we’ve been building them up since. They are still present here - the warden saw four or five earlier this week. There is not much we can 
do other than give them space to recover.”

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