'Second myxomatosis' ravages Britain's rabbits

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The Independent Online
Britain's rabbit population is under threat from an imported disease that could become as great a scourge as myxomatosis was in the 1950s and 1960s, writes Keith Nuthall.

Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) arrived in this country from Europe four years ago and has spread rapidly through the wild rabbit population from the south west to Scotland. Last year, cases among pet and farm-bred animals rose by 100 per cent.

The disease can kill in a day, attacking internal organs and causing great pain to victims, which often die screaming. It can be spread by insects, by people who have handled infected animals and even by the wind, but there is no risk to human health.

It is the second rabbit plague this century. In the 1950s and 1960s millions of rabbits were killed by the myxomatosis virus, which was deliberately introduced in this country to curb rabbit numbers and is still at large.

VHD has arrived at a time when wild rabbit numbers in Britain are recovering from that blow and are once again causing concern among farmers. The current population is estimated at 37 million and farmers complain of the destruction grazing animals cause to crops and the damage done to the landscape by burrowing.

VHD also threatens pet and farm rabbits. Experts are advising owners of pet rabbits to have their animals vaccinated against the disease, while the Ministry of Agriculture has tried to restrict its spread by making it a notifiable disease and banning owners of infected animals from moving other rabbits from their premises. The disease was first reported in China in 1984 and has spread quickly across the world: by 1987 to Korea, Italy, Hungary, the former USSR and Czechoslovakia. The international trade in pet rabbits and rabbit meat has been blamed for carrying it from continent to continent.

It has the capacity to wipe out most of the country's rabbits: when it reached Spain and Portugal, it killed 80 per cent of the wild rabbit population there. This had a knock-on effect for some rare predators, such as lynxes and eagles, which were left without their usual food supply.

In Australia, where the virus was released accidentally after it was borne by insects from an island where it was being studied by scientists, many thousands of animals have died.