The total number of reports of suspected cases of RHD2 – rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus – has declined noticeably in 2021, according to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

Since the initial discovery of the disease in wild rabbits and hares in Ireland in August 2019, Minister Darragh O’Brien said that the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) staff of his department have continued to monitor for it, assisted by the Department of Agriculture.

In response to a parliamentary question from Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore, the minister said that reports of suspected cases have been followed up and carcasses submitted to the Department of Agriculture’s Regional Veterinary Laboratories for testing.

“Although dedicated surveys have not been possible, the available evidence suggests that RHD2 remains primarily a disease of rabbits, with some limited spill-over into hares,” the minister explained.

“Furthermore, the total number of reports has declined noticeably in 2021.

“To date this year, four rabbits have been submitted for testing, with only one of these proving positive – an animal submitted by a private vet and suspected to be a pet rabbit.

“Five hares have also been submitted for testing since the start of 2021, four of these have proven negative for RHD2.

“We are still awaiting the results of the fifth hare. Monitoring will continue.”

Call for rabbits to be included in fur farming ban

While the upcoming ban on fur farming in Ireland is welcome, the Campaign for the Abolition of Cruel Sports is calling upon the government to add rabbits to the list of animals that cannot be farmed for their fur.

The Fur Farming Animal Health and Welfare (Amendment and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021 received the go-ahead from government for its drafting last month.

The drafted bill applies to cats, chinchillas, dogs, foxes, mink and weasels (including stoats).

The campaign has said that it is “vital” that rabbits are included in this legislation – and “although there is presently no rabbit fur farming in Ireland, there would be nothing to prevent somebody from starting it”.

“The animal is susceptible to the highly-contagious RHD2 which inflicts agonising death. In the past two years, the disease has been confirmed in the Irish countryside.

“The disease can spread easily in conditions where the animals are bunched together, as would occur in a farm or factory setting,” the campaign claimed.

There have been a number of calls in the past year for a ban on hare coursing due to the risk of spreading rabbit haemorrhagic disease.

‘Impact on the hare could be catastrophic’

While the disease is fatal to rabbits and hares, it is of no risk to humans.

According to the NPWS, the disease was first reported in domestic (farmed) rabbits in China in 1984, “killing millions of animals within one year of its discovery”.

“By 1986, this viral disease had been found in continental Europe and has since spread globally leading to significant mortality in wild populations of rabbits,” the NPWS said.

“In 2010, a new more virulent strain of this virus – RHD2 – emerged in France. It causes death within a few days of infection with sick animals having swollen eyelids, partial paralysis and bleeding from the eyes and mouth.

“Most distressingly, in the latter states close to death, animals exhibit unusual behavior emerging from cover into the open and convulsing or fitting before dying.

“The virus has been detected throughout Europe, in wild rabbits, hares and seemingly unrelated species including voles and shrews.

“The Irish hare is native to Ireland and found nowhere else and should this disease prove as infectious and lethal here as it has done elsewhere in Europe, the impact on the hare could be catastrophic.”