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Rabbit numbers stable despite disease threat

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THE Island’s wild rabbit population remains stable despite declining numbers in the rest of the British Isles – but they are under threat from two deadly diseases, an environment expert has warned.

A wild rabbit enjoying the sunshine. Picture: ANGELA LE BOUTILLIER

A recent UK survey by the British Trust for Ornithology, who also study mammals, revealed that overall numbers of wild rabbits have dropped by 60 per cent in the last 20 years, with a five per cent reduction in the last 12 months.

The study attributes the decline to viral haemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis, and warns that if wild rabbits numbers continue to fall it could affect the wider ecosystem and other species.

Environment’s principal ecologist John Pinel says that although local wild rabbit numbers appear to be stable both VHD and myxomatosis are present in the Island.

‘We don’t directly monitor the rabbit population but at the moment we think they are doing OK,’ Mr Pinel said. ‘We monitor them indirectly by noting their impact on areas of natural grassland around the Island as they are a very important animal for managing our species-rich grassland on the sand dunes and heathlands.

‘These are extremely diverse habitat terrains full of small plants and invertebrates, and rabbits do a good job of keeping the grass in check which allows little plants to survive. We know when there is a decline in the local population because the grasslands grow longer than they otherwise would.’

The Island’s wild rabbits have been subject to outbreaks of myxomatosis since it was introduced to Jersey in the 1950s. At that time, and in the 1960s, it was not uncommon to see hoards of rabbits, in their thousands all over natural areas such as Noirmont headland. They also caused issues for farmers by eating crops.

Due to recurrent outbreaks of the highly infectious disease, which is spread by biting insects such as fleas and mosquitoes, Mr Pinel says numbers have never recovered to pre-outbreak level. However, he added, the current population is sufficient in doing its job of maintaining natural spaces for wildlife and plants to thrive.

Pet rabbits are also susceptible to VHD but can be vaccinated against infection.

Paula Thelwell

By Paula Thelwell
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