Plan to unleash new rabbit killing virus

Rabbit damage costs the agricultural industry tens of millions of dollars in control and lost production each year. Photo / File
Rabbit damage costs the agricultural industry tens of millions of dollars in control and lost production each year. Photo / File

A new strain of virus that could decrease the number of rabbits by 30 per cent is up for government approval.

The virus, called RHDV1-K5, is a Korean strain of the lethal calicivirus already present in New Zealand that kills rabbits.

Dr Janine Duckworth, leader of Landcare Research's rabbit biocontrol initiative, said it could help farmers slash the number of rabbits by up to 30 per cent.

The New Zealand Rabbit Coordination Group and Landcare Research are seeking approval from Ministry for Primary Industries and the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to introduce K5 into New Zealand.

Rabbit damage costs the agricultural industry tens of millions of dollars in control and lost production each year.

Duckworth said K5 had undergone thorough testing in Australia, where it is likely to be approved for release later this year.

Dr Janine Duckworth, leader of Landcare Research's rabbit biocontrol initiative, said the virus could help farmers slash the number of rabbits by up to 30 per cent. Photo / Supplied
Dr Janine Duckworth, leader of Landcare Research's rabbit biocontrol initiative, said the virus could help farmers slash the number of rabbits by up to 30 per cent. Photo / Supplied



"They've been testing lots of different strains and K5 is the one that looks the best," Duckworth said.

The K5 strain would be a boost to rabbit control by killing some of the rabbits now immune to rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), which was first illegally imported in 1997.

The new strain of virus will provide farmers with a more cost-effective and efficient solution than strains currently in the field today. This should make follow-up with conventional trapping, shooting and dogs more effective and worthwhile too, Duckworth said.

However, K5 wouldn't be a "silver bullet" to New Zealand's rabbit problem, she said.

With a surge in rabbit numbers this year due to the good summer and mild winter Duckworth said she was worried some farmers may take matters into their own hands and try to illegally import the virus in from Australia.

"We don't want an illegal release of the K5 strain. We want to ensure that control agencies use a commercially-prepared product, free from any unwanted viruses and that the timing and method of release is managed to ensure the best possible rabbit control outcomes for farmers."

A vaccine is available for owners of domestic rabbits to protect their pets from the virus.

- NZ Herald

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