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Fears fatal rabbit disease may have jumped across to hare population

PUBLISHED: 14:39 17 October 2018 | UPDATED: 16:43 18 October 2018

Brown hare leveret in long green grass. Pic: Elliott Neep

Brown hare leveret in long green grass. Pic: Elliott Neep

© Elliott Neep

Conservationists at Essex Wildlife Trust fear that myxomatosis - a disease that up until now has only impacted the rabbit population - may have jumped across to hares.

Brown hare at Stow Maries Aerodrome Picture: RUSSELL SAVOURYBrown hare at Stow Maries Aerodrome Picture: RUSSELL SAVOURY

Essex Wildlife Trust has urged people to be vigilant after it said a suspected case of myxomatosis in a hare was reported in north Essex.

A member of the public contacted the Trust after finding the animal near Halstead and should the cause of death be confirmed as myxomatosis it would be the first record of a hare with the disease in Essex.

Myxomatosis typically affects rabbits and up until now has not been known to jump across to hares. A number of suspected cases have also been reported in Norfolk and Suffolk in recent weeks and the wildlife trusts from all three counties are working with Dr Diana Bell at the University of East Anglia to discover for certain what caused the hares’ deaths.

Dr Bell has recently been studying the impacts of diseases on rabbit populations, including myxomatosis and strains of rabbit hemorrhagic disease (RHD), but as yet has not confirmed that any of the recent hare deaths were down to myxomatosis.

READ MORE: What is the mystery disease killing our hares?

Brown hare -  adult standing upright on hind legs Pic: Elliott NeepBrown hare - adult standing upright on hind legs Pic: Elliott Neep

Conservationists are particularly concerned about any mutation of the virus that might jump across to hares because of the fragility of the hare population. In the past century, hare numbers have declined significantly, especially in the west of the UK, making the relatively healthy hare population in the East region that more precious.

Darren Tansley from Essex Wildlife Trust said: “Hares have suffered from an 80% decline since the late 19th century and their population is not as robust as rabbits. Over time many rabbits develop a resistance to the disease, however there won’t be any resistance in hares yet so this outbreak could be extremely detrimental.”

Myxomatosis was originally introduced into Australia in 1950 in an attempt to control the rabbit population and first reached the UK in 1953, where it was initially considered an effective rabbit bio-control measure. Its deliberate use was banned several years later after it decimated the rabbit population.

The disease, caused by the myxoma virus, is spread by direct contact with an affected animal or from biting insects. Infected rabbits usually die within 14 days of contracting the disease, developing skin tumours, blindness, fatigue and fever.

Mr Tansley said the Trust was monitoring the situation closely and called on members of the public to report any dead or sick hares which appear to show myxomatosis symptoms and send pictures to the trust.

Brown hare at Stow Maries Aerodrome pic: Russell SavouryBrown hare at Stow Maries Aerodrome pic: Russell Savoury

He said: “Nothing has been confirmed as yet but it is important we monitor any potential impact on the population. This is a new phenomenon and should it be myxomatosis we have no idea how rapidly it might spread across the hare population.

“Rabbits are more social than hares and live in large burrow systems where the disease can spread easily - hares are more solitary and don’t burrow, so any virus might take longer to spread.”

If you see a hare acting unusually or displaying any possible signs, please send your records to Essex Wildlife Trust on records@essexwt.org.uk, with a photo if possible.

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