During the first week of March this year, environmental groups around the region released a virus that is deadly to European rabbits.
The Peel Harvey Catchment Council (PHCC) and the Peel-Harvey Biosecurity Group joined with local councils to infect feral rabbits with Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV1) in the hope of reducing the pest’s numbers in the region.
The virus, which was released as part of a 20 year long nation-wide plan to control rabbit populations, is considered to be one of the most humane ways of eradicating the feral pest species: according to the PHCC it gives the rabbits “cold-like” symptoms, lethargy and fever, with death occurring within 6-12 hours in most cases.
This is the first time in 20 years that a new rabbit biocontrol agent has been released into Australia.
But why are these environmental groups – who you may assume to be animal-lovers – on a mission to eradicate rabbits?
According to PHCC chief Jane O’Malley, releasing the virus will help alleviate stresses placed on the agricultural and natural environments in the region.
“They eat native and introduced vegetation, crops and pastures causing extensive environmental and agricultural damage,” Ms O’Malley said.
“They cost Australian agriculture $206 million in production losses each year, and there are at least 156 threatened species that are adversely affected by the competition and land degradation caused by rabbits.”
She said the Peel region in particular was already under significant environmental stress from land clearing and pollution.
The virus, originating in Korea, has been used since 1991 as a control agent for feral rabbits.
Precautions for precious pets
Ms O’Malley said though their only aim is to target feral European rabbits, she understood there may be some concern in the community regarding their pets.
“There is no intention to infect pet rabbits as a result of this virus release, and DAFWA [Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia] and the PHCC have promoted the need for pet rabbit owners to get their pets vaccinated against the virus,” she said.
“We do not want pet rabbits to be affected by the release of the virus, and we are only concerned with effective and safe control of feral rabbits.”
If your pet rabbit has not been vaccinated against RHDV1 it is advised you visit your vet immediately.
Studies have found the vaccine to be entirely successful in protecting domestic rabbits from the virus, but owners are also advised to:
- Prevent direct and indirect contact between domestic and wild rabbits
- Use insect-proof hutches and keep rabbits indoors
- Wash your hands with warm soapy water between handling rabbits
Some community members raised concerns about the virus potentially impacting other non-target animals, such as possums.
DAFWA reassured the public that RHDV1 was a host-specific virus, and had not been found to cause infection in any other animal except the European rabbit.
“Even predatory animals that eat rabbits that have died from RHDV1 do not develop an infection,” a spokesperson said.
They said CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratories had conducted a number of studies on the impact of the virus on animals other than rabbits, including livestock, native wildlife, and even some feral animals.
These studies showed that in all cases no animals other than European rabbits develop disease from the virus, even those who ate or were exposed to rabbits that were killed by the virus.
“The protection of native species is the main goal in reducing rabbit populations and their safety has been of utmost importance in the process of developing the tools to minimise the impacts of rabbits,” the DAFWA spokesperson said.
They added the virus does not have an afterlife or a dormancy like a poison, and cannot persist for long in the environment before degrading completely.
Ms O’Malley said that as such, the virus is considered to be low-risk to the natural environment.