‘They’ (whoever they are) say that a picture paints a thousand words. I think this picture paints a few. This photo was taken just now, without any zooming, from our conservatory.
First, it shows how close the wild rabbits get to our house, so it’s no wonder that we were always more at risk from the transfer of infectious diseases. Second, just look at all those delicious, luscious plants growing tall and strong. And what is the wild rabbit eating? Yes, grass. They all do. They have a little nibble at other bits and pieces, but by far the most substantive part of their grazing is the lawn. Many of us (and I include myself in this) provide a lovely wide range of foraged plants for our bunnies, but actually if you observe the diet of the wild rabbits, they mostly just eat grass.
Third, and I guess most significant in the context of this diary, is that we still have wild rabbits. Note that this one is an adult though, and I’ll come back to that shortly. The mortality of RHD2 is thought to be between 7% and 50%. I’ve been lucky that for me it has been down the lower end of the spectrum, but I have heard about breeders having virtually all their ‘stock’ wiped out. All my rabbits are routinely vaccinated, with three of the five existing adults having had their boosters in April. Even the babies had been vaccinated with the normal nobivac myxo-rhd the week prior to the illness first rearing its head. Does this make a difference? Although the myxo-rhd doesn’t protect specifically against RHD2, is there some element of cross-immunity? Is that one of the reasons why I’ve been so lucky with the low mortality here? One of the papers I’ve read on RHD2 in France said that an outbreak was stopped by vaccinating the remaining rabbits (although with what, I don’t know). Wild rabbits obviously wouldn’t have any cross-immunity from vaccinating, so if that is the case, I would expect mortality to be higher among the wild population.
Having been paranoid about RHD2 for a while, I had been watching our local wild rabbit population like a hawk, giving myself reassurance that they all seemed fine, which they did for a long period. There are two warrens in our garden, one up the top end in that big flower bed at the back of the photo, and one right down the other end of the plot nearer to where my own rabbits live. There are also a couple of nursing stops, one by the back door (bad choice, mother rabbit) and another underneath one of the sheds which I used to have rabbits in. As part of my grand plan to move everybun down into an enclosed corner, this shed has been empty since its occupants were rehomed back in April and it’s awaiting dismantling and remantling (is that a word?) in the now enclosed corner.
The normal morning routine involves seeing wild rabbits scatter in every direction when I emerge into that part of the garden with everybun’s breakfast. Rabbits of all sizes head off in the various different directions, depending on where their burrows/nursing stops/hidey holes are. On an average morning, I’d say that about 10-15 wild rabbits scatter when I head out there. In the evenings, there are usually about a dozen wild rabbits at the end of the garden in the photo, grazing on the edge of the slope. What I noticed fairly quickly was that I was down to seeing maybe just 3 or 4 scattering. And they were all older. When I started to observe more, it was quite obvious that virtually all the rabbits I was seeing were adults, whereas previously virtually all of them had been youngsters. Yes I know youngsters grow up and become adults, but they don’t turn from 700g to 2kg overnight. This is a very sudden, noticeable change in the population demographic, if you can have demographics apply to rabbits. Even as I type this, I can see 4 wild rabbits munching on grass outside, and they’re all adults.
So does RHD2 disproportionately affect youngsters? I don’t know. Certainly it did within my own rabbits – but then I had 7 youngsters together so they’re perhaps more likely to get it. I realise that it’s not scientifically valid, but my observations of the wild population do also indicate that it disproportionately affects youngsters. Is that because young rabbits are more naive and unable to cope with predation/ill health, or does RHD2 actually target younger ones more?
I would expect wild rabbit mortality to be higher in general. Not only do they not have any protection from previous vaccinations, but they also don’t have the benefit of supportive therapy or protection from predators if they fall into the ill-but-not-acutely-fatal camp. The thing that made me most aware that Jeremy wasn’t right was when my cat walked past the run and all the other rabbits legged it for cover, and Jeremy just stayed where he was, munching away, completely away with the fairies. He was protected by their enclosure, wild rabbits don’t have that luxury. So even if it’s not the RHD2 that’s actually the direct cause of the mortality, more of them are likely to die simply because they will be victims to predators when they are poorly. Jeremy didn’t (for the most part) hide away, although he was always alone and not sitting with his siblings; he still came out and ate and pottered around. He was just really vacant and unaware of his surroundings. Vacant and unaware wild rabbits will sadly become dinner for a hungry fox within a very short space of time.
Gosh, I’ve written more than I had intended, and I’ve probably repeated myself. The sun has just come out again, so I’m off down the garden to continue the work needed down there. When it’s all done I’ll put up a photo. It might be 2019 by then.