First confirmed cases of rabbit virus found in UK hares

Rabbit virus is identified as one of the causes of recent UK hare deaths.

European brown hare © Chris Upson/Getty

Collaborative research led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) has discovered the first case of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2) in the UK’s European brown hare population.

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The UK hare population has declined by more than 80 per cent over the past century due to intensive agricultural practices. However, concern about new diseases grew as members of the public started reporting sightings of obviously sick and dead hares in September 2018.

Researchers from UEA joined forces with the Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex Wildlife Trusts, the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the APHA Surveillance Intelligence Unit to investigate the cause.

Working together with diagnostic laboratories in England, Scotland and Germany, RHDV2 was detected in dead hares found in both Essex and Dorset.

European brown hares can be distinguished from rabbits by their long black-tipped ears and larger size. © Gary Chalker/Getty
European brown hares can be distinguished from rabbits by their long black-tipped ears and larger size. © Gary Chalker/Getty

“RHDV2 normally affects rabbits, but the disease is known to have jumped to European brown hares in Italy, Spain, France and Australia,” says lead researcher Dr Diana Bell, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences.“This is the first time that RHDV2 has been found in hares in the UK.”

“RHDV2 is one of several pathogens we are finding in dead hares and it is too early to say which is currently the primary cause of the hare die-off. We are continuing to investigate other causes for the deaths.”

Members of the public are being urged to continue helping researchers by photographing sick and dying hares, and collecting dead bodies for autopsy.

“We are enormously grateful for the continuing tremendous response from the British public,” says Diana. “This is good example of citizen science.”

It is hoped that an expanding dataset will allow the research team to map reported mortalities over time.

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The research was published in Vet Record.