Where Did All The Rabbits Go?

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The decline of the humble rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, across many areas of the UK has been notable. This has been reported by many country folk, hunters and conservationists. Yet the dearth of rabbits in distinct areas is matched by reports from some areas that the rabbit is alive and kicking in healthy numbers. So what’s going on?

There is a specific reason for the rabbit famine, of course. A very worrying reason. The proliferation of any ‘species-specific’ disease is cause for concern. Even more so when there is suspicion of deliberate introduction into the UK for purely commercial reasons. No, I’m not talking about myxomatosis this time. I’m talking about both RHDV1 and RHDV2. The rabbit haemorrhagic disease viruses.

Viruses that effect rabbits or hares are known as lagoviruses. In China (in 1984) a new lagovirus emerged amongst a population of Angoran rabbits which had been imported from Germany just days before the outbreak. The new disease proved unstoppable and wiped out around 140 million farmed and domestic rabbits in Asia. The disease was RHDV1. In 1986, it turned up again in Europe and spread like wildfire from Italy to Scandinavia. By 1988 it had infected the European wild rabbit population. In 1990, the disease reached the famous rabbit population on the island of Gotland in Sweden. Almost the entire population was dead within one week. The start of the spread of the disease two decades ago was largely attributed to contaminated rabbit meat … a popular product in Europe. Our Antipodean friends, as they did with myxomatosis, saw RHVD as a potential for biological pest control (not as a threat). Unfortunately the Australian Government’s experiments on Warranga Island (4km off the mainland) resulted in accidental transmission to the mainland, probably through flies. The New Zealand government, to be fair, decided not to adopt RHVD as a pest control medium. So someone introduced it illegally in 1997!

It is now spread by many different vectors. Insects, flies and fleas can carry the virus from infected host rabbits to other rabbits. It travels in animal faeces. Birds such as carrion eaters can carry it in their beaks, mammals such as fox, dog or badger can carry it in their mouths and their faeces. It transmits by ‘aerosol’ means too (breath, sneezing, breeze). One of the most important vectors for the spread of RHVD is us, humans. We can carry the virus on our hands and on our footwear.

The virus is extremely robust. Chinese experiments have shown that it survived in rabbit livers frozen at -20oC for 560 days. It also survived temperature of +50oC for 60 minutes. It can survive on clothing at 20oC for over 100 days. In short, RHVD is the rabbits worst nightmare. So what is the difference between RHVD1 and RHVD2? And why does the virus seem to have completely missed many geographical areas of Britain?

To answer the first question, RHVD2 (sometimes called RHVD Variant) emerged in France in 2010. Latter research has shown that it has been in the UK since 2010, too. It ‘variance’ is allowing it to attack rabbit populations which had previously built up resistance the RHVD2 and many rabbits are now exposed to the new lagovirus. The most devastating property of RHVD2 is that newly born rabbits have no resistance to the virus. With RHVD1, kits under 5 weeks of age contracting the virus had a naturally immunity which would stay with them for life. That at least gave a life-line for survival for the wild rabbit. There is a worry that this new strain may carry its pathogens to other Lagomorphs, which could have huge consequences for the Brown Hare.

What of the second question, though? The random spread of the epidemic? There are two threads of research that may offer the answer to this enigma, yet neither are conclusive at the moment. Both relate to Rabbit Calicivirus (RCV).

The first possible explanation is the immunity built up to RCV. Many of us will recall the emergence of RCV during the mid-nineties?. A disease closely related to RHVD but non-pathogenic. Many rabbits survived RCV and built up anti-bodies which rejected the RHVD virus. So, ironically, it is possible that many colonies that have resisted the first wave of RHVD could be those who were strengthened by infection by RCV in their community.

The second possibility relates to research undertaken in Australia in 2014 which suggests that climatic conditions influenced the spread of RCV and has therefore reduced the pathogenicity of RHVD. A quick and simple summary of the research is that RCV was most infectious in the cool and damp areas of South East Australia. Therefore resistance to RHVD is most prevalent in those same areas. Great Britain has many areas with cool, damp micro-climates. Are these where the rabbits are holding out in numbers? If so, how long will it be before the new variant affects these colonies?

The rabbit became an established staple in the British countryside centuries ago and is sorely missed where it has lost its foothold. I know that from personal experience. I haven’t shot a rabbit for four months as I write this. Not that I haven’t seen a few here and there but you simply don’t shoot what has become rare. You only harvest what is abundant. That should be a hunters apothegm. But I don’t just miss the rabbit as ‘quarry’. As a primary prey species its loss will have an detrimental consequence on many other species and a knock-on effect, too. The fox and stoat, in the absence of rabbits, turn their attention to the hen-house or the ground nest. The buzzard, to the poults.

The British Countryside without the ubiquitous ‘coney’ would be unthinkable.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, March 2018

The Misinformed (Part Two)

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A piece I put up on here earlier this week seemed to have provoked much interest and emotion (The Misinformed). Many people took it to be a defence of foxhunting (a passionate and divisive subject) and so launched into the usual diatribes about hounds ripping animals apart and a perceived hunting elite charging about in red coats? That was not the purpose of my post at all. If you read through liberal eyes and not an anti-hunting (the term hunting covers a plethora of activities) red mist then you will realise I was questioning how the future of our species will cope if ‘progress’ smothers the bushcraft and fieldcraft skills that we have developed across several millennia. Skills that dragged us from crawling on all fours to the highly developed species we are today. I must admit to being amazed at the few critics of my piece who said that now, in the 21st century, we have evolved beyond the need for hunting? And again I am taking that as a broad-brush statement meaning that these folk think that we have evolved beyond killing an animal for the table, to protect a crop or to protect a herd. For the benefit of the misinformed (I won’t apologise for the use of that term again) that is what ‘hunting’ is. One creature killing another for food, to feeds its dependents or to protect its territory. Unless I missed out on a biology lesson or two, homo sapiens are animals too

Forgive me for analysing this a bit further and attempting to follow their reasoning? If mankind can’t have a mandate to hunt, then it is denied the right to an alpha species status. So, logically, we shouldn’t farm either. If we can’t hunt then we shouldn’t round up and selectively breed animals for food or fibre. It took a hell of a long time to evolve from hunter to herder and for both to compliment each other. Thousands of years. So I will happily ignore claims that a hundred years of urbanisation have negated the need for the hunter / gatherer / farmer to exist.

One constant companion of the hunter has been the dog. It has been genetically proven that every dog species today has a common genetic link to the wolf. A relationship with the wolf and its subsequent hybrids developed over those millennia which added an advantage to our pursuit of meat for the table. A relationship which benefited both species (incidentally, the fox has a genetic missing link to wolf and dog). The hybrids, the first hounds, added speed, scent awareness and hearing advantage to the hunters toolbox. If that relationship hadn’t been forged, none of you would have a pet dog today. Fido would be extinct. The wolf or wolf/dog would have been simply another food source. We, mankind, developed an ability to synchronise with another species and develop that relationship into a beneficial, symbiotic partnership. Dogs were evolved to hunt for food and to protect crops (ironically usually from their genetic predecessor, the wolf).

Every day millions of folk turn on their TV sets to watch the wonders of the wild in their living room and exalt the magnificence of the prowling lion or sprinting cheetah pulling down a wildebeest or impala. Full-on hunting action complete with blood and guts, in glorious HD format, brought into the home via superb technology and filming while the viewer is stuffing their sanitised cardboard beef burger down their throat. Everyone says ‘Wow!’ TV awards are dished out for the superb, raw educational content of the documentary series. And I applaud that too. But hey? Chasing down a rabbit or hare for the table? Where’s the difference? That’s where greyhound racing was founded. Oh, I remember. It’s because, according to my recent ‘protagonists’ the reason we don’t need to hunt is because meat is readily available in the supermarket. Because we have ‘evolved’ and it’s the ‘21st century’. Really? So how did the meat get there? That’s where you ‘hunting critics’ really need to focus your attention. Wild meat like venison, gamebird and rabbit … meat drawn from the field using gun, trap, net (or bow in the USA) … is pure, untainted and hard won.

Culling vermin to protect crops and herds is legitimate. It helps spring lambs and poultry to live a free-range life with reduced threat of predation. The most vulnerable time for crops is while breaking ground as shoots. Depending on the crop itself, vermin control will save valuable acreage. Of course, these are arable crops … so how can a vegetarian contest this? A woodpigeon can devour up to 150 peas in one sitting, storing them in their crop. I could put up a photo to prove this but I don’t need to and you really wouldn’t want to see it. Just pull a pack of Bird’s Eyes peas out of the freezer and count them. Divide the contents of the bag by 150. Work out the cost of the cost of the bag per 150 peas. Multiply that by the estimated two million woodies in the UK right now. Then realise that I’ve just talked about one feeding session. Don’t ever try to tell me that hunting, crop control and vermin control is non-essential in the 21st century. There is almost a case for a national industry in woodpigeon control alone.

The one thing I abhor above all things is hypocrisy. If you eat meat, it came from a dead animal, which didn’t commit suicide. If you are vegetarian, your food was protected from predation and contamination, the latter probably by chemical intervention. The former by pest control by people like me. Get used to it. Accept it.

I could get into a serious rant here about the ‘The Misinformed’ but I’ll cut it short with a few simple questions. Where does your dog and cat food come from? How many creatures does your cat kill when let out? Is TB in cattle acceptable? How many of you have had your hen house trashed by a fox? Does a beef ‘finisher’ herd die of old age? What bird lays sausages? Did you have turkey for Xmas? How many trees were cut down to print Fifty Shades Of Grey? How would you deal with hitting a deer on a country lane and it didn’t die but lay there kicking?

One of my critics this week called me ‘condescending’. You’d better bloody believe it. Because I live in the real world. Not a pampered, Disneyfied, shallow landscape where wildlife and conservation are comfortably squeezed between Eastenders and the News At Ten and distorted for political agendas.

Before you brand me as ‘angry’. I’m not really. I love the countryside, what I see in it and what I achieve in it. But I actually spend a lot of time there. Hunters do. If you are anti hunting, can you say that of yourselves?

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2015