Wild rabbits

Wild rabbits are one of the most serious agricultural and environmental pests in New Zealand. Learn about measures in place to control their spread.

Updates

19 June 2018 – RHDV2 vaccine available in NZ

7 June 2018 – 2 new cases confirmed

15 May 2018 – New strain of rabbit calicivirus confirmed in NZ


The problem

Rabbits have been a constant source of trouble for New Zealand since they were first introduced in the 1830s. It's previously been estimated that rabbits cost New Zealand over $50 million in lost production, plus a further $25 million in direct pest control a year.

Wild rabbits:

  • compete with livestock for pasture by eating the best grass
  • cause extensive land damage from burrowing, making farming land useless
  • cause public nuisance and damage to public and private property.

Ongoing management of wild rabbits is essential to New Zealand's economy and environment.

Managing rabbit numbers

New Zealand has a long history of rabbit control. The main methods used to control rabbits are shooting, poisoning, fumigation of burrows, and rabbit-proof fencing. An introduced virus (Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus) also reduces rabbit numbers.

Under the Biosecurity Act, MPI has a role facilitating coordination among those involved in rabbit control (such as the Rabbit Coordination Group). We also support the development of rabbit control tools through funding programmes.

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV)

RHDV – also known as rabbit calicivirus – is a virus used as a pest control tool to reduce the number of wild rabbits. It affects the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Rabbits are infected with the virus which then spreads through the population. Once a rabbit shows symptoms, it dies quickly.

Rabbits get the virus:

  • from direct contact with other rabbits – through their eyes, nose, and mouth
  • from flies, fleas, and possibly some mosquitos, which can carry the virus.

Urine, faeces, and respiratory secretions may also shed the virus.

Rabbit calicivirus doesn't affect other animals

Calicivirus is a family of virus and there are several types. The 2 most common types in New Zealand are rabbit calicivirus (also known as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus) and feline calicivirus – which affects cats.

These 2 viruses are completely different and don't jump between species. RHDV only affects rabbits, it doesn't present a danger to cats, dogs, or any other type of animal.

Rabbits are becoming immune to RHDV1

A Czech strain of RHDV1 strain was illegally introduced to New Zealand in 1997 after an application for its import was declined. Initially, the virus caused a fast and large drop in rabbit numbers. However, in the 20 years since it was first introduced, New Zealand's wild rabbits have become increasingly immune to the RHDV1 strain.

RHDV variant assessed in 2017

In February 2017, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) released its decision on an application under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act. The EPA decided the RHDV (K5 variant) is non-hazardous.

RHDV1 K5 is a new strain but it is not a new virus. It's a Korean strain of the existing RHDV1 virus. The RHDV1 virus is already widespread in New Zealand and specific to the European rabbit.

After the EPA decision, MPI still had to approve the use of the virus under the Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines (ACVM) Act and the Biosecurity Act. The virus could not be imported or used without MPI's approval.

Application for approval to use RHDV1 K5

In February 2018, MPI approved an application from Environment Canterbury to import and release the RHDV1 K5 virus for pest rabbit management. The intention was to introduce the strain nationally.

The virus won't completely fix the wild rabbit problem for New Zealand farmers. But the new virus strain will have an effect on wild rabbit populations and will supplement traditional methods of control.

MPI assessed the potential benefits and impacts of the virus before granting the application. As a result, MPI has imposed a number of conditions to ensure the virus will be securely transported, stored, and used in accordance with strict protocols.

MPI also considered risks to animal welfare and sought independent advice from the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC). This advice resulted in controls being applied to the sale and use of RHDV1 K5 to address specific welfare concerns.

A nationwide release of the virus will take place over March and April 2018.

Concerns about pet rabbits

MPI acknowledges some domestic rabbit owners have questions about how to protect their pet rabbits from the virus. MPI advises pet rabbit owners to discuss vaccination plans with their veterinarian to ensure their rabbits have the best protection available.

The existing Cylap RCD Vaccine, which has been used in New Zealand for many years to protect domestic rabbits from the current RHDV1 virus, can also be used to protect pet rabbits against the RHDV1 K5 strain. Zoetis, the manufacturer of the vaccine has confirmed that additional vaccine supplies have been made available in New Zealand.

Advice for pet rabbit owners

MPI has responses available for questions we have received about the virus, including how long it takes for immunity to develop in pet rabbits following vaccination.

Questions and answers about the virus [PDF, 120 KB]

Vaccinating pet rabbits against RHDV

It's recommended you vaccinate rabbits with the Cylap RCD Vaccine at 10 to 12 weeks of age, with an annual booster vaccination to keep them protected. Talk to your vet for more information.

RHDV2 strain – discovered in May 2018

On 15 May 2018, MPI confirmed that a new strain of the rabbit calicivirus had been discovered in a single wild rabbit found on Molesworth Station in the South Island. It was picked up by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research as part of routine sampling for research into the impact of RHDV1-K5.

The strain – called RHDV2 – is widespread in Europe and Australia but had not previously been found in New Zealand. While we still don't know how widespread this strain is in New Zealand, the virus can spread rapidly, so there is a chance it is already prevalent in the wild.

Two cases identified in the Bay of Plenty

On 7 June 2018, MPI received notification from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research that 2 wild rabbit samples from the Bay of Plenty region had tested positive for RHDV-2 – the first confirmed case in the North Island. 

The new positive samples, supplied by the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, were from wild rabbits from a single farm in early December 2017. This indicates that RHDV2 strain was present within New Zealand's wild rabbit population before the K5 strain was released in early 2018.

It is unlikely that the new strain can be eradicated or contained now it has been confirmed in wild rabbits on both the North and South Islands.

The virus affects rabbits and the European hare. It has no impact on human health or other animals. However, we can't rule out a potential risk to pet rabbits.

Vaccine for RHDV2

MPI has imported 2,000 doses of vaccine to help rabbit owners who would like to immediately vaccinate their animals.

This vaccine has not previously been held in New Zealand because the RHDV2 virus strain wasn't known to be present here.

The first shipment of RHDV2 vaccine was distributed in June to veterinarians who ordered it. Rabbit owners who would like to vaccinate their rabbit will need to book an appointment with their veterinarian.

MPI has covered the cost of the 2,000 vaccine doses. Rabbit owners need to cover any additional costs, such as the veterinarian's consultation fee.

Based on demand, long-term supplies of the RHDV2 vaccine are available to veterinarians by placing orders with AsureQuality.

Steps you can take to minimise the risk

There are a number of practical steps rabbit owners can take to minimise the risk to their rabbits.

  • Keep them separate from wild rabbits.
  • Wash hands between handling rabbits.
  • Control insects around pet rabbits as they can spread the virus between rabbits.
  • Avoid cutting grass and feeding it to pet rabbits.
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect cages and equipment.

Find out more

Who to contact

If you have questions about RHDV:


Funding programmes

MPI continues to support the development of humane and effective pest control tools. Since 2012, through the Sustainable Farming Fund, MPI has provided funding for 3 projects relating to rabbit control.

2016 to 2017 funding round

Release strategy for improved RHDV strains to maximise the benefits of rabbit biocontrol

  • Landcare Research (on behalf of Waikari Pest Management Liaison Committee). 
  • MPI committed funding up to $240,000 (grant number 404961). $11,900 has been paid to date for this 3-year project.

2012 to 2013 funding round

Rabbit biocontrol initiative: better RHDV strains for improved rabbit control in NZ

  • Landcare Research (on behalf of Waikari Pest Management Liaison Committee). 
  • MPI provided $480,000 (grant number 12/055) for this 3-year project.

Refining operational practices for controlling rabbits on agricultural lands

  • Landcare Research (on behalf of the Rabbit Coordination Group). 
  • MPI provided $330,000 (grant number 12/058) for this 3-year project.

Find out more

Who is involved in rabbit control?

Several agencies are responsible for rabbit control work including:

Rabbit Coordination Group

The Rabbit Coordination Group brings key organisations together to improve our management of rabbits in New Zealand. The group includes representatives from regional councils, Federated Farmers, Department of Conservation, Land Information New Zealand, and MPI (and we also provide a secretariat function).

Find out more

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