Unable to shoot rabbits this Easter, New Zealand mulls deadly virus to fight ‘plague’

Unable to shoot rabbits this Easter, New Zealand mulls deadly virus to fight ‘plague’

In New Zealand, Easter is usually a time for killing rabbits. But, faced with a ban on the annual slaughter this year, one region is hoping to deploy a deadly virus instead.

Wild rabbits are considered a serious pest in New Zealand, particularly in rural areas, with major impact on agriculture and native landscapes. In parts of the South Island, the boom is reaching “plague” proportions, a spokesperson for Otago regional council (ORC) said on Wednesday.

Typically, New Zealand holds an annual Great Easter Bunny Hunt, where hunters compete for who can kill the most rabbits. In 2022, 12,000 were killed. This year, however, the hunt has been cancelled due to fire risks and health and safety concerns, and in the meantime, the region’s rabbits are multiplying.

“Densities of up to 16 rabbits per square kilometre have been logged in some places during ORC night-count monitoring,” the council said in a statement. “Rabbits have an impact on pasture and crops with just 10 rabbits devouring the equivalent of what one sheep requires.”

According to the ministry of primary industry, rabbits cost New Zealand an estimated NZ$50m (£25m) in lost production, plus a further $25m in direct pest control each year.

In an attempt to control the rabbit population, the Otago council is hoping to get government permission to spread Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV). A strain of the virus was first imported and introduced illegally to New Zealand in 1997, devastating rabbit populations at the time. Another Korean strain was legally imported and released in early 2018. Over time, however, rabbits have become increasingly immune.

Now, local councillors are investigating if it is viable to remove RHDV from the biosecurity’s “unwanted organism list”, which could pave the way for its reintroduction.

Libby Caldwell, the council’s manager for environmental implementation, said the rabbit situation was “a wicked problem”. As well as pushing for the virus to be approved, the council has created a rabbit action plan, employed two staff to lead rabbit eradication programs, and named rabbits their official “pest of the month”.

This article by Tess McClure was first published by The Guardian on 7 April 2023. Lead Image: Rabbits are considered a serious pest in New Zealand. Photograph: Patrick Pleul/dpa-Zentralbild/ZB.

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