Many of you will have been reading the stories in the news recently about an increase in unexplained deaths of brown hares and the possibility that Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease or myxomatosis is now infecting them. Dr Diana Bell from the University of East Anglia's School of Biological Sciences has urged members of the public to report sightings of obviously sick and dead hares by photographing the animal, including the head and bottom, and emailing the photographs and precise location to firstname.lastname@example.org. It isn't certain yet that the disease has jumped species and there are no lab results so far proving these hare deaths are caused by the virus.
It has been an accepted dogma for many years that hares don't get myxomatosis. Scientists in Australia, where hares are an introduced pest, tried for many years to infect them with the virus and failed. Although they look superficially similar, rabbits and hares are very different physiologically. If the virus really has mutated sufficiently to infect hares, there are significant implications for both hare populations and potentially other wildlife.
Although brown hares have declined nationally by more than 80% in the past 100 years they, like hedgehogs, polecats and harvest mice, aren't fully protected in the UK and they can be forgotten about in impact assessments. Luckily there's a very helpful publication on just this topic, co-authored by our very own Steph Wray and some leading lights of mammal ecology.
Cresswell WJ, Birks J, Dean M, Pacheco M, Trewhella WJ, Wells D and Wray S (2012). UKBAP Mammals: Interim Guidelines for Survey Methodologies, Impact Assessment and Mitigation. The Mammal Society, Southampton
You can get a copy from the Mammal Society, Natural History Book Service, from Amazon (other ubiquitous giant online retailers are available..well, maybe) or perhaps just come and chat to us about UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) mammals. The kettle's on.