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Discovery of new disease adds to threats facing UK hares

Discovery of new disease adds to threats facing UK hares
10 Apr
A surge in reports of dead hares has resulted in the discovery of a hidden disease in UK populations

The number of bodies being reported to us just hasn’t stopped since last September, it’s gone through the roof,’ says Dr Diana Bell, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences. She’s referring to public reports of dead hares that have poured in from 450 locations across the UK ever since Bell released a public call for such incidents last year.

Researchers have known that hares are in trouble for a long time. Brown hares have experienced a decline of more than 80 per cent in the UK over the past century due to changes in agricultural practice, but this new blight looks to be the result of something else. Working together with diagnostic laboratories in England, Scotland and Germany, Bell has detected the first UK cases of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2) in brown hares, specifically those found dead in Essex and Dorset.

The disease, which causes fatal internal bleeding, though leaves its sufferers intact on the outside, was first identified in 2010, in commercial rabbits bred for food and fur. It then spread to wild rabbit populations in the UK and France and then jumped species being identified in hares on the continent a few years ago. This latest discovery marks the first diagnosis for UK hares.

So far, only brown hares appear to be affected in the UK, but RHDV2 does present a threat to other species, including the mountain hare, Britain’s only native hare and a ‘near threatened’ species according to the Mammal Society. ‘My suspicion is that all species of hare worldwide are susceptible which would be a disaster because they play an important role in ecosystems as prey and grazers,’ says Bell. Given that RHDV2 originated in commercial rabbitries she stresses the need to look very carefully at these farms and monitor how their waste is dealt with – the disease can spread very easily by foot or vehicle tire.

RHDV2 is far from the only bad news for hares. A range of other diseases and pathogens affect them and illegal hare coursing, a practice increasingly associated with online gambling in which cameras are attached to dogs and gamblers bet on which one will catch and kill a hare, is a serious threat (Lincolnshire police alone received 1,175 reports of hare coursing in 2017/18).

Legal hunting is also common and Bell points out that the UK does not have a closed season for hunting as some other European countries do. It’s an issue right across the UK. In August last year, a study by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the RSPB, revealed that from 1954 to 1999 the mountain hare population in the eastern highlands of Scotland had decreased by nearly five per cent every year, in part due to the unregulated practice of hare culls which the researchers said had no clear justification.

Given the many threats to hares Bell is calling for a voluntary no-shoot among hunters, though it’s unclear whether that call will be heeded. In the meantime she expects little let-up. ‘Hares are really up against it,’ she says.

This was published in the April 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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