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Published: 2005-06-16 00:00:00

Environment Waikato is proposing a limited, targeted release of the rabbit calicivirus in rabbit-prone areas of the Region.

This week’s Biosecurity Committee meeting heard that staff proposed to amend the Regional Pest Management Strategy to allow the Council to release the rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus in specific areas. The highly contagious disease kills rabbits from heart and respiratory failure in 30 – 40 hours, Programme Manager Peter Russell said.

Several years ago the virus was illegally released by Otago farmers, but the nature and strain of the virus was not well known, and coupled with poor storage and indiscriminate distribution, the virus largely became ineffective. RHD was no longer available, although it still existed uncontrolled in the wild.

The Biosecurity Managers Group agreed to work together to import a virus from Australia and manage its sale, distribution and use throughout New Zealand. Environment Southland had received ERMA and ACVM approval to import and register the virus in New Zealand on behalf of a consortium of 12 regional councils and unitary authorities, he said.

The sale and use of the virus would be restricted solely to these pest management agencies and authorised users. In the Waikato it would be used to target small isolated populations of rabbits, including urban and in the future high public use areas in winter months where normal rabbit control methods such as poisoning, shooting and trapping were not possible or effective.

It would not be used as a biological control as artificially initiated epidemics had the effect of stimulating induced immunity in rabbit populations.

Rabbits were widespread throughout the Region in variable numbers and control was a landowner’s responsibility. However, staff and contractors had always felt hamstrung that no practical control methods existed for semi-urban areas, especially around holiday settlements where there were a high number of absentee owners. A change was needed to the Pest Strategy to allow the use of the virus, he said.

As the virus already existed in the wild no-one’s rights would be significantly affected and domestic rabbits could be readily vaccinated against the disease.
Staff believed the proposed policy was minor in nature and would benefit the Region overall.