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Alert over deadly bug attacking rabbits

IRELAND'S rabbit population is reeling from a deadly virus which is devastating warrens across Munster and Leinster.

Wildlife officials are now assessing Ireland's rabbit population amid fears it is suffering its greatest decline since another virus, Myxomatosis, was deliberately introduced to control numbers in 1954.

That virus wiped out 95pc of Ireland's native rabbit population and, because of repeated outbreaks, has kept rabbit numbers at a fraction of their level in the early 20th Century.

Now, Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) has spread throughout Ireland and is believed to be responsible for a decline in rabbit numbers.

VHD, which is also known as rabbit calicivirus disease, was first confirmed in Ireland in 1992 and is believed to have arrived here via the UK and Europe.

The disease has a 50pc mortality rate but is exceptionally dangerous because it is so easily spread.

The virus is also capable of surviving in abandoned warrens for up to three months, re-infecting healthy rabbits which move back in.

Irish wildlife officials are now trying to assess whether rabbit numbers here have declined at the same rate as in the UK. The European Journal of Wildlife now estimates that the UK rabbit population has dropped by 48pc in just 20 years.