New virus set to reduce wild rabbit population

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Otago Regional Council receives approval to release rabbit virus

Landowners around Otago will be breathing a sigh of relief that the application to import and release a rabbit virus has been approved.

The RHDV1 K5 (K5) virus is a Korean variant of a strain that is already in New Zealand, and could reduce the rabbit population by over 40%.

Otago Regional Council (ORC) director environmental monitoring and operations Scott MacLean said the approval of K5 is good news for Otago.

“Rabbits are the number one pest in Otago,” he said. “Ten rabbits can eat as much grass as one sheep. They are a threat to our biodiversity, not to mention the soil degradation and loss of soil caused by rabbit holes and warrens.

“The K5 virus, which only affects the European rabbit, may give us the opportunity to reduce rabbit numbers to the level where they are manageable. It will be especially beneficial in areas where traditional rabbit management methods are either not possible or not acceptable,” Mr MacLean said.

ORC plans to release the virus in Otago in late March/April and is currently monitoring rabbit numbers so they can give updates on how effective it is.

The virus will be spread nationally in a coordinated programme. There will be over 100 release sites in Otago and ORC will coordinate the release to make sure the K5 virus has
maximum impact.

“We are really pleased that ORC will be funding this initiative, which will benefit all our ratepayers,” Mr MacLean said.

“We have already identified the most strategic release sites in anticipation of the virus being approved, and are now getting ready to put the plan into action. These sites were selected based on science, to ensure we have the best chance of creating an epidemic and high knock-down rate.”

The virus will be released in the form of a commercially-prepared product.

“We know farmers will be keen to get the virus released on their property, but we need people to be patient and trust us to do our job. Once we have more detail, we plan to work in collaboration with land owners so we can all get the best outcome,” Mr MacLean said.

“Rabbits will never be eradicated, and ongoing support from the community will be important to keep the rabbit numbers down after the virus starts to take effect.

“The virus is just one tool to help landowners manage rabbit populations, but it doesn’t replace primary methods. In areas like Moeraki and Naseby, where traditional management methods are more challenging, the virus will definitely help,” Mr MacLean said.

People need to make sure their pet rabbit vaccinations are up to date to protect against the K5 virus. Rabbit owners should discuss any concerns with their vet. No vaccinated pet rabbits in Australia, where the virus was released in 2017, have caught the K5 virus.

More information and frequently asked questions can be found HERE


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