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Experts fear the wild Irish hare could be under threat from the virus. Shutterstock/Vlad Sokolovsky

Minister suspends hare coursing licences after deadly rabbit disease discovered in the wild

The National Parks and Wildlife Service is asking the public to report any suspected discoveries of the disease.

A DISEASE WHICH is fatal to hares and rabbits has been discovered for the first time in the wild in Ireland prompting Culture Minister Josepha Madigan to suspend coursing club licences.

The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht made the announcement this afternoon in an appeal for the public to report any suspected cases to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) was first reported in farmed animals in China in 1984 and wiped out millions of the animals within a year of being discovered.

Animals who contract the disease display symptoms including swollen eyelids, partial paralysis and bleeding from the eyes and mouth, as well as spasms before dying within days. 

The Department confirmed  the disease has been found in wild rabbits in Ireland and as hare coursing is “considered to increase the risk of disease spread,” licences for coursing clubs have been suspended. 

“This is a serious development for the wild Irish hare and the decision to suspend the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club to capture and tag hares is in the best interests of animal welfare,” Madigan said.

“While there is no threat to human health, experts advise that this disease is highly contagious among rabbits and hares, and I am acting on this advice,” she added.

RHD spread from China to parts of Europe in the 80s and new strains have since developed, including a new strain discovered as recently as 2010 in France.

Last year, the disease was discovered in domestic rabbits in Ireland but has now been discovered in the wild hare and rabbit population for the first time, with reported discoveries in Co Wicklow, Co Clare, and today in Co Wexford.

Dr Ferdia Marnell of the NPWS Wildlife Unit said the virus poses no risk to humans but it is severely contagious and even uninfected animals can be carriers of it. 

The Irish hare is native to Ireland and found nowhere else prompting fears that this disease could have a devastating impact on the hare population here. 

“Rabbits are central to wild ecosystems, being the main food for many predators from stoats to eagles that in turn regulate other animal populations.

“A decline in our wild rabbits will have numerous knock-on consequences. Of further concern is the potential for the disease to spread through the Irish hare population.”

He said: “RHD presents absolutely no threat to human health and it is entirely safe to handle infected or recently dead rabbits or hares provided normal hygiene is followed.”

This time of year is considered coursing season and usually sees thousands of hares being captured in the wild. 

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