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User Icon     Posted 11 months ago     by Jim Hook     

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV) and the fragile balance of nature

When I moved into my current home eight years ago I had an army of rabbits keeping my grass down. They, like all other wildlife in my garden, were safe from any designs I might have to take one or two for the pot as my wife likes to see them running about. It must have been three or four years ago when we noticed a steep decline in our population. When I say steep, I actually mean terminal velocity off a cliff face. All of our rabbits disappeared overnight. We went from about fifty to zero in an instant. At first we thought it was mixi but had wondered why we hadn't seen any ill animals first. We hoped they would return the following year but they didn't. Only last year did we see a rabbit again....a hybrid where a wild and domestic had interbred. Fortunately it was accompanied by three naturally wild youngsters.

I had heard of the new 'no prisoners' virus decimating rabbit populations in the USA, and also that it was headed for the UK. I hadn't realised it had been here in its first variant (RHDV1) since 1992 as I had never seen anything but strong rabbit populations wherever I have lived. Its evident, even from my own experience in my small 3 acre plot, that RHDV2 isn't just a silent killer but it is incredibly virulent and has one objective - the extermination of all rabbits. What a tragedy it will be if it is successful in its mission. On a positive note however, I do know of a few large thriving populations of both rabbits and hares. The fact that RHDV managed to obliterate my few rabbits in a sheltered location on the edge of a large town with no easy way for rabbits from other areas to gain access is very worrying though. If it reaches these strong populations there will only be one winner.

Whilst I care for the rabbits and hares, its the wider implications of RHDV on other species that possibly worries me more. Rabbits are a food source for an array of predators including raptors and foxes. If one food source runs dry then these predators will turn their attention to another. Nature will resolve many of the issues itself but there will be a survivability cost to other species as well as a financial cost to man. Grouse, pheasants, partridge, chickens and other [ground nesting] birds will all have to take up the strain until an equilibrium is attained. Its difficult to know what to do about the current situation. Vaccines have been developed, but how do you effectively distribute it to wild animals? Its likely, albeit unfortunate, that there will be arguments against vaccinating these animals as they are regarded as pests in many countries. The short sightedness of man can often have far reaching effects that are either not considered, or worse ignored, in favour of the short term perceived benefit of the loss of rabbit populations. Lets hope common sense prevails and we learn something from the COVID virus on the far reaching domino effect of any pandemic.

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