Rabbits are being wiped out across the UK by a deadly new strain of a virus which could be as fatal for wildlife as myxomatosis, experts have warned.
A new study, entitled “Where have all the rabbits gone?”, concludes that there are probably well under a million wild rabbits left in Scotland thanks to the rise of the latest form of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV).
That is around the same level to which the total UK rabbit population plummeted at the height of the 1950s myxomatosis outbreak.
Researchers at the James Hutton Institute (JHI) near Dundee suspect that numbers UK-wide could now be down to less than four million as the more virulent strain of highly contagious RHDV “decimates” the animals.
The prediction is based on monitoring at five farms in Scotland and England over the past three decades which found significant drops in numbers sighted and shot – down from peaks of more than 300 to 15 at one site.
Researchers said the findings suggested that declines of up to around 90 per cent reported between 1995 – soon after the original strain of RHDV was found in the UK –and 2009 were ongoing.
Although the type 2 variant was not reported in Scotland until 2014, researchers fear it is the cause of the downward trend and has been present in the UK for years.
Unlike myxomatosis, the virus causes no tell-tale signs, so animals appear healthy until they drop dead.
While good news for farmers, who lose millions of pounds a year in crop damage to rabbits, the creatures’ current decline threatens the survival of iconic predators and thousands of pet rabbits.
JHI research associate Dr Brian Boag, who is presenting the study next week at a conference in Dundee, said rabbit numbers in Scotland “will now probably be well below 1,000,000”.
“The impact of such a decline could be similar to that seen after myxomatosis, where predator numbers of buzzard, stoat and fox fell.”
In Spain, the European lynx and Spanish Imperial eagle are both now endangered after RHDV significantly reduced rabbit numbers there.