Disease fatal to rabbits and hares confirmed in Ireland

Highly contagious virus of no risk to humans, says National Parks and Wildlife Service

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease causes death within a few days of infection, with sick animals having swollen eyelids, partial paralysis and bleeding from the eyes and mouth. Photograph: iStock

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease causes death within a few days of infection, with sick animals having swollen eyelids, partial paralysis and bleeding from the eyes and mouth. Photograph: iStock

 

A disease, which is fatal to rabbits and hares but of no risk to humans, has been confirmed in the wild in Ireland for the first time.

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) causes death within a few days of infection, with sick animals having swollen eyelids, partial paralysis and bleeding from the eyes and mouth.

In the latter states close to death, animals exhibit unusual behaviour such as emerging from cover into the open and convulsing or fitting before dying.

Irish domestic rabbits were first reported to have the disease in 2018, but it has now been confirmed in the wild from a rabbit in Co Wicklow and another in Co Clare. On Friday, a hare in Co Wexford was also found to be infected by the virus.

In all cases individual animals were tested at Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine laboratories where RHD2 was subsequently confirmed.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is asking the public to report any suspected cases to them.

While all three locations continue to support apparently healthy wild populations, NPWS conservation rangers continue to monitor the situation.

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 seemingly uninfected animals may in fact be carriers.

Knock-on consequences

As a result, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has decided to suspend the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club to capture and tag hares for the 2019/20 hare coursing season with immediate effect until a clearer understanding of the extent, spread and implications of the virus emerges.

Dr Ferdia Marnell, from the NPWS scientific unit, said this was concerning because rabbits are “central to wild ecosystems”.

“A decline in our wild rabbits will have numerous knock-on consequences. Of further concern is the potential for the disease to spread through the Irish hare population,” he added.

Dr Marnell stressed that the disease presents “absolutely no threat to human health and it is entirely safe to handle infected or recently dead rabbits or hares provided normal hygiene is followed”.

Josepha Madigan, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, encouraged members of the public to report any suspected cases to the NPWS.

“This is a serious development for the wild Irish hare and the decision to suspend the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club to capture and tag hares is in the best interests of animal welfare,” Ms Madigan said.

“I encourage members of the public to report any suspected cases to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. While there is no threat to human health, experts advise that this disease is highly contagious among rabbits and hares, and I am acting on this advice,” she added.

The public – particularly landowners, farmers, vets and the hare coursing community – is being asked to be on high alert and to report any suspected sightings of diseased rabbits and hares as soon as possible to help efforts to monitor and control the disease. Sightings can be reported to the NPWS through email on nature.conservation@chg.gov.ie or via phone on 1890 383 000.