I propose to take Questions Nos. 563 and 564 together.
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease has caused deaths of domestic pet rabbits in Ireland for a number of years. It was first confirmed in the wild in Ireland in July 2019. The first two positive tests recorded were from rabbits – one in Wicklow, the other in Clare. The first report of and RHD2 positive test in an Irish hare came on the 9th August – an animal found dying in the Wexford Slobs Nature Reserve. The disease has now been confirmed from six different counties – Cork, Clare, Leitrim, Offaly, Wicklow and Wexford.
A post mortem of each dead animal has been carried out by qualified personnel in the regional laboratories of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine (DAFM). Tissue samples have then been sent to that Department’s specialist virology lab in Backweston where the RHD tests take place.
Most of the research available on the particular strain of virus, RHD2, comes from rabbits to date. From this work, and some investigations in a number of hare populations around Europe, we know that the RHD2 strain is highly contagious and has led to significant declines in wild rabbit populations across Europe since it first appeared in 2010. It has also been reported from several different species of hares.
The disease is density-dependent (i.e. the higher the density of animals the higher the incidence of the disease). The virus is extremely resistant, remaining viable for up to two months in the environment. It can be passed on by direct contact, in faeces (including the faeces of predators that have consumed infected animals) and in urine. Infected carcasses can harbour infective virus for several months post mortem. The virus can also be transported on soil, shoes and on clothing. Environmental contamination presents significant difficulties in terms of any biosecurity responses. There is no cure for the disease and while some animals are believed to be carriers and thus apparently immune, mortality of up to 70% is possible.
In an effort to reduce the spread of the disease, biosecurity measures have been put in place at the two NPWS Nature Reserves where the disease has been located – Wexford Wildlife Reserve and Boora Bog. The Office of Public Works have also implemented biosecurity measures at Scattery Island – one of the locations in Clare where the disease has been confirmed.
There is an effective vaccine against RHD2 available for domestic rabbits. However, this has not been tested on wild rabbits and has not been tested on hares. Licensing of vaccines for use on wild hares would require authorisations from the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA) and also potentially the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
My Department's NPWS Staff are continuing to monitor reports of wild rabbit and hare deaths to gain a fuller understanding of the extent and impact of this disease in Ireland. At least 4 more hares from three different counties are currently with DAFM for testing.