Funding boost for research into deadly hare disease

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Greater Anglia and its five Community Rail Partnerships have joined forces to help fund vital research into a deadly hare disease.

Fears that East Anglia’s hare population could be wiped out by a new killer disease has prompted a plea for more funding from the University of East Anglia (UEA) for research into the disease.

Since October 2018, UEA has received over 1000 separate reports from the public of often multiple dead or dying hares across the UK, from northern Scotland to the Kent coast and from East Anglia to Devon and Wales.

Researchers at the university have shown that one of the reasons for these deaths is a new calcivirus that has already severely affected rabbit and hare populations in Europe, and are now looking to find out more about the disease.

The virus - Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease 2 or RHDV2 - was first reported in domestic rabbits in England and France in 2010. It was subsequently found to have jumped to European hares in France in 2013 and other countries across Europe as well as Australia. Researchers have confirmed that this has now happened in the UK.

The research recently benefited from a £2,000 donation from Greater Anglia and its five Community Rail Partnerships - but more funding is needed to support the work.

Alan Neville, Greater Anglia’s Customer and Community Engagement Manager, said, “Hares are absolutely iconic to our region – which is why we adopted a stylised hare as the mascot for our new trains – so it was heart breaking to hear of their plight.

“As a company which cares very much about the region and works closely with our five Community Rail Partnerships to protect and enhance our fragile ecosystems through greener travel and wildlife initiatives at rural stations, we felt that we needed to join forces and offer some funding in the hope that a solution can be found.”

The research is being led by Professor Diana Bell, a leading Professor of Conservation Biology at UEA. She is working to collate a database of all reported cases, map them and collect hares that have succumbed to the disease so that they can be tested by veterinary pathologists and virologists to increase understanding of the virus and any other pathogens causing hare deaths.

Prof Diana Bell said, “Thanks to the public reporting cases of dead and dying hares, we have now been able to confirm one cause of the escalating deaths as the jump of RHDV2 from rabbits to hares in the UK for the first time.

“We fear that many of the other 35 species of hare worldwide may also be susceptible to this new virus, presenting a significant threat to the global hare population. Indeed, RHDV2 has now been reported in at least four other hare species across Europe, including the Mountain hare.”

“This would have major global impact both for hares and the many ecosystems in which they play an important role as grazers and prey species.

“The next step is to find out more about RHDV2 through further research but we need funding urgently. We would be so grateful for further donations to help us continue to carry out this important work.”

Donations can be made at: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/hares-diana-bell-uea-research