independent

Monday 16 September 2019

First case of rabbit disease in Wicklow

Myles Buchanan

A disease fatal to rabbits and hares which has now been found in the wild Ireland, was first detected in County Wicklow.

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) was first reported in domestic (farmed) rabbits in China in 1984 killing millions of animals within one year of its discovery. By 1986 this viral disease had been found in continental Europe and has since spread globally leading to significant mortality in wild populations of rabbits.

In 2010, a new more virulent strain of this virus (RHD2) emerged in France. It causes death within a few days of infection with sick animals having swollen eyelids, partial paralysis and bleeding from the eyes and mouth. In the latter stages close to death, animals exhibit unusual behaviour emerging from cover into the open and convulsing or fitting before dying.

The disease was reported in Ireland from domestic rabbits in 2018, but had never been reported in wild rabbits until a recent incident was confirmed in Co Wicklow. That was followed up by confirmed case in a wild rabbit in Co Clare.

This week the virus was confirmed in a hare in Co Wexford.

In all cases, the animals were tested at Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine Laboratories where RHD2 was subsequently confirmed. All three locations continue to support apparently healthy wild populations but NPWS Conservation Rangers continue to monitor the situation and remain conscious of the situation in the UK, where mass mortalities have been reported.

Dr Ferdia Marnell of the NPWS Scientific Unit said: 'Rabbits are central to wild ecosystems, being the main food for many predators from stoats to eagles that in turn regulate other animal populations. A decline in our wild rabbits will have numerous knock-on consequences. Of further concern is the potential for the disease to spread through the Irish hare population.'

The Irish hare is native to Ireland and found nowhere else. Should this disease prove as infectious here as it has done elsewhere in Europe, the impact on the hare could be catastrophic.

The Department has decided to suspend the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club to capture and tag hares for the 2019/20 hare coursing season with immediate effect until a clearer understanding of the extent, spread and implications of the RHD2 virus emerges.

Dr Marnell stressed: 'the Rabbit Haemorrhagic disease presents absolutely no threat to human health and it is entirely safe to handle infected or recently dead rabbits or hares provided normal hygiene is followed.'

The disease is highly contagious and can be spread directly between animals, through the faeces and urine of infected animals, as well as by insects and on human clothing. In addition the incubation period may last several days and apparently uninfected animals may in fact be carriers. Under these circumstances the catching of hares in nets, their transportation in boxes and the collection and holding of hares in confined areas can all be considered to increase the risk of disease spread.

The public are being asked to report any suspected sightings of diseased rabbits and hares as soon as possible to help efforts to monitor and control the disease.

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