Fatal disease in hares stops coursing in its tracks

A disease that has jumped from rabbits to hares has led to a ban on coursing in Ireland.

Following the first confirmed case of type 2 rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHDV2) in hares, found in Co Wexford and Co Clare, Ireland’s Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has suspended licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club to capture and tag hares for the 2019/20 hare coursing season with immediate effect until, it says in a statement, ‘a clearer understanding of the extent, spread and implications of the RHD2 virus emerges’.

Coursing is an important sport in Ireland and the move will cost it millions. Watch our film on coursing in Ireland:

The Department’s National Parks and Wildlife Service is asking the public to report suspected cases. It already identifies the capture of wild hares for coursing as a clear route for the disease to spread through the wild hare population.

A kind of calicivirus, RHD was first reported in domestic rabbits in China in 1984, killing millions of animals within a year of its discovery. The disease was first reported in European rabbits in 1986. Scientists report that the new more virulent strain of RHDV2 emerged in European brown hares (Lepus europaeus) on the continent in 2010. It has jumped again. The Irish hare is a variant species, Lepus timidus, the same as the UK’s blue or mountain hare.

In England and Wales, where coursing is banned, the government veterinary service admitted the presence of RHDV2 in early 2019. In its latest GB Wildlife Disease Surveillance Partnership quarterly report [PDF], it says, ‘some shooting estates have cancelled hare shoots to help preserve hare numbers.’

Research scientists were quicker off the mark. A team from the University of East Anglia led by Professor Diana Bell has been investigating deaths in hares in England since September 2018 (read more here). It identified RHDV2 as one of the causes of deaths.

Brown hare showing signs of RHDV2

RHDV2 is a virulent disease. APHA says it received 29 hare carcases for inspection between 2009 and 2017. In 2018-2019 alone, it received 30. Diana Bell’s team has had 750 reports accounting for the deaths of tens of thousands of British hares.

RHDV2 is the latest in a string of diseases to hit hares. The two UK species are declining but not endangered. In recent years, a disease from North America, tularemia, has hit hare populations on the Continent. Another, similar disease, is European Brown Hare Syndrome (EBHS), a contagious, acute disease of both the European brown hare and mountain hare first described in the early 1980s. Dr Bell says tularemia and EBHS are not what’s killing hares in the UK.

RHDV2 poses no risk to humans – but the species jump of the disease is not over. One of Diana Bell’s research team says: ‘Reports of RHDV2 jumping to shrews and voles in Spain and Portugal are extremely worrying and we would ask members of the public to remain vigilant for any they find in the UK.’

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