Tony Jackson: Where are the rabbits?

Photo by Matt Austin

Photo by Matt Austin - Credit: Archant

Tony Jackson is saddened to find rabbits near his home are succumbing to the terrible disease myxomatosis

Once as common as fleas on a hedgehog, for the past four or so years rabbits, in my part of the world, became increasingly scarce.

There was a time when the fields round the cottage were home to scores of bunnies and then, suddenly, the numbers dwindled, yet one seldom came across the remains of a rabbit or saw any signs of the fell disease, myxomatosis.

There were, it was rumoured, other forms of disease which were affecting rabbits whilst it was also possible that the swelling population of polecats, pure and feral, in the West Country, might have also been instrumental in a rabbit cull.

However, in the spring of this year there were hopeful signs of resurgence when modest numbers of half¬grown rabbits and adults began to appear, while a friend living some eight miles away reported healthy and burgeoning populations in his area.

However, it was not to last. A few weeks ago a neighbour, in some distress, asked me to deal with a sick rabbit which had staggered into her garden and was now crouching behind a shrub by her front door.

It was, of course, in the final stages of myxomatosis, the poor creature’s head swollen and eyes filled with pus. I despatched the animal and then had my worst fears confirmed when, the following day, one of my yellow Labradors retrieved from a local field where they are exercised, not one but in succession two live rabbits also in the final stages of this disgusting disease.

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So, it seems that once again this horrible man-inflicted epidemic is still with us even though outbreaks appear to be isolated and lacking the virulence of the initial outbreak in 1953.

The South American Myxoma virus, borne and spread by rabbit fleas and mosquitos, was introduced into Australia in 1950 and then, in France, rabbits near Paris were deliberately infected and released into the countryside. Somehow, either intentionally or by a chance vector, the disease crossed the Channel and the first outbreak of myxomatosis was recorded in Kent in 1953.

At that time it was estimated that the rabbit population in the UK was in the region of around 100 million animals, causing a massive agricultural loss each year and although legislation was passed to make it illegal to spread the disease, there is not the slightest doubt that infected animals were deliberately dumped in regions as yet unaffected by the disease and the result was that 99 per cent of the rabbit population was destroyed.

Yet the few rabbits remaining, ever resilient, fought back and a degree of immunity was established. Rabbits are still a part of our countryside, thank goodness, and long may they remain so.

On a more cheerful note, whilst the exigencies of the printing world demand that copy is prepared in advance of publication date, so far it seems that the mild, relatively dry winter in the south-west has offered some hope for butterflies and moths. On a personal note I spotted several Holly Blues, Orange-tips, a Speckled Wood and a Peacock in my garden in the spring and have also seen a handful of Tortoise-shell butterflies in the vicinity of young nettles where, hopefully, they will breed and go some way to reverse the dramatic decline in number seen last year.

The Holly Blues are relatively common visitors to gardens in the early part of the year, seeking holly on which to lay their eggs for the first generation, and in the summer ivy for the second generation. This last over-winters as pupae to emerge in the spring. The Holly Blue population varies from year to year as it is attacked by a parasitic wasp. However, when the butterfly numbers decline, so too do those of the wasp, as it then lacks a host, and the up and down cycle continues, year after year. This year, hopefully, would appear to be in favour of this very attractive little butterfly.

Let’s hope that 2017 will see a resurgence in the fortunes of our butterflies, moths and the insect life which is so essential for pollination.