Mystery disease kills British hares

Hares are being found dead of disease across the UK.

The lead scientist on the outbreak, Dr Diana Bell of the University of East Anglia, says she is receiving multiple reports of hare deaths, “from Scotland, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Bath, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex to name but a few locations often reporting several deaths at each site. These have mainly occurred over the past four weeks and are continuing to happen,” she says.

Posting at the beginning of January 2019, she says: “Details of the new viruses we have identified and shown to be circulating will be published shortly.”

Some members of the hunting and shooting community speculate the disease could be tularemia, which occurs mainly in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the US, and has recently been found in hares in France. Tularemia can jump to humans and recently killed a member of a German hare-shooting party.

Members of the public are sending Dr Bell photographs of dead and dying hares. Many of these show, she says, “characteristic symptoms of myxomatosis so we are convinced that this has made a widespread jump to hares”. However, She is not excluding the possibility that other pathogens may also be at work.

“The citizen science response from the public has been tremendous in reporting dead hares from northern Scotland to the south coast of England. The team has been collecting these for post-mortem through an expanding collaborative network of veterinary pathologists working with the wildlife trusts, gamekeepers, landowners, hunts and farmers.”

A live, diseased hare found in South Norfolk at the beginning of October
A live, diseased hare found in South Norfolk at the beginning of October

Dr Bell requests fresh carcases so she can conduct thorough post-mortems If you find a dead or dying hare, please email her D.Bell@uea.ac.uk

“A number of estates have implemented a voluntary ‘no-shoot’ policy this Winter in response to this decline,” she says. “We emphasise that the die-off is still happening with Hares being reported on a daily basis and we re-emphasise the urgent need to double bag any dead hare found using gloves and report immediately to Dr Bell at D.Bell@uea.ac.uk or on 01603 592177 and Jonathan Davis on 07872 149147 (WhatsApp photos are invaluable), so that they can assist in identifying temporary freezer storage until the animals can be collected. We give an enormous thanks to everyone that has contributed observations, photos and bodies so far and underline the need to continue to submit the latter please.

“We are dealing with huge numbers of reports which we are trying to analyse in terms of date and location.”