Rabbit disease threatens protected birds

RABBIT numbers in the Borders could be hit by deadly diseases as well as the winter weather, writes Sally Gillespie.

The food of endangered birds of prey and raptors that otherwise pick off game birds and upland waders, rabbits fought to survive the month-long freeze at the end of last year.

But the Borders population also faces a virus which decimates numbers, aside from the usual scourge of myxomatosis.

Scottish Wildlife Trust’s (SWT) south-east reserve manager Julian Warman said: “Our rabbits will be struggling to survive through the harsh winter conditions we have faced.

“They also face a challenge to their survival due to the presence of fatal diseases like viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD) and myxomatosis.

“While they can cause problems for landowners, rabbits can in rare cases help to maintain species-rich grassland. They are also useful prey for a number of raptors and dead rabbits will provide food for buzzards, red kites and other carrion-eating animals.”

Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, Alex Hogg, gamekeeper of 7,000 acres in Peeblesshire for more than 20 years, says VHD has decimated rabbit populations in his area but that the species will and does survive.

Mr Hogg said: “We normally shoot about 3,000 rabbits a year but it’s gone down to hundreds.”

The highly contagious virus, originally from China, was first recorded in Britain in 1992. Also known as rabbit calicivirus disease, it kills rabbits within two days.

“The first time it came through Peeblesshire was about five years ago. The whole area was just wiped out, it happens so quickly. They just disappear and then you’ve got the raptors having to try to find other food and that is when endangered waders (lapwings, curlews and others) can get harmed.

“The weather hasn’t helped. Last year the snow was on ground for six weeks. We’re over 2,000 feet up here and it was two feet deep: the rabbits couldn’t find food. I picked up hundreds of dead rabbits. That combined with this disease has really hit them hard but the rabbit always bounces back somehow or other.”

It is difficult to measure how much of a problem the disease is.

Mr Warman said: “Without scientific testing and monitoring, it is often difficult to know whether a wild rabbit carries VHD and without this information we cannot estimate how quickly this disease is spreading or what its effect might be on the future of Scotland’s rabbit population.”

A spokesperson for scientists at the Scottish Government’s Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture department played down the threat of VHD saying: “It’s here, it’s something that’s been around since the 1990s. There have been sporadic outbreaks but it’s not had the same impact it has had in continental Europe because of a natural immunity of the rabbit population here.”