Monday 18 November 2019

Hares and rabbits under threat from RHD outbreak

The Irish Hare population is under threat from a new more virulent strain of a viral disease
The Irish Hare population is under threat from a new more virulent strain of a viral disease

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

For the first time, an outbreak of a deadly disease has been confirmed in hares and rabbits in Ireland and the public are asked to report any instances. All Irish Coursing Club licences have been suspended to help control the spread of the fatal disease.

While the disease, called rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), is highly contagious and fatal to rabbits and hares, it poses no risk to humans.

Infected animals die within days. Sick hares and rabbits have swollen eyelids, partial paralysis and bleeding from the eyes and mouth. Most distressingly, in the latter states close to death, animals exhibit unusual behaviour emerging from cover into the open and convulsing or fitting before dying.

RHD poses no risk to humans. People, particularly landowners, farmers, vets and members of the hare coursing community, are encouraged to report dead or dying animals to the National Parks and Wildlife Service as soon as possible by email to or by 'phone to 1890 383 000.

This is an excellent example of citizen science in action. The office-bound scientist in Dublin charged with monitoring the spread of the outbreak of RHD depends for his or her information on a nationwide network of interested citizens reporting observations that he or she would otherwise be totally unaware of.

The disease was first reported in Ireland from domestic rabbits in 2018 but has now been confirmed by Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine laboratories in the wild from a rabbit in Co Wicklow, another rabbit in Co Clare and a hare in Co Wexford.

RHD is caused by a virus. The disease was first reported in farmed rabbits in China in 1984. It killed millions of animals within one year of its discovery. By 1986 the viral disease had spread to Europe. Since then it has spread globally leading to significant mortality in wild populations of rabbits.

In 2010, a new more virulent strain of virus called RHD2 emerged in France. This is the virus currently present in Ireland. Any significant decline in our wild rabbit population will have numerous knock-on consequences as the rabbit is the main food for many predators from stoats to eagles.

The disease is highly contagious and can be spread directly between animals and in 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.

Wexford People

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