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ORC prepares for release of K5 rabbit virus

Otago Regional Council (ORC) has made plans to release the RHDV1 K5 (K5) rabbit virus later this month.

K5 is a rabbit virus that could reduce Otago’s rabbit population by over 40%. It’s a variant of a virus that’s already present in New Zealand, and only affects the European rabbit. Approval to import and release the virus was given in late February.

Otago Regional Council (ORC) director environmental monitoring and operations Scott MacLean said the virus needs to be released before the weather turns colder.

“Now is the optimal time to introduce the virus. While it spreads naturally between rabbits, it relies on flies to spread it further and fly numbers decrease as the weather cools,” he said.

ORC staff are currently putting out carrots at strategic locations around Otago, to get the rabbits used to eating them before the bait with the virus in it is put out later in the month.

“We have selected locations based on science telling us how close the release sites need to be for the virus to have maximum impact. We’re also targeting the areas with the biggest rabbit problems. Once released, it should start to take effect within a couple of days, and we could see a reduction in rabbit numbers within the next month or two,” Mr MacLean said.

ORC staff are monitoring rabbit numbers so the effectiveness of the virus can be reported.

Pet rabbit owners have voiced concerns about how the virus will affect their animals. RHDV1 is not a new virus to New Zealand, so domestic rabbits are at risk of this disease regardless of the introduction of the new K5 strain. ORC recommends pet rabbit owners should make sure vaccinations are up to date, and to talk with their vet if they have concerns.

“The virus is a variant of a strain that’s already in NZ, so nothing changes. It only affects the European rabbit, so people don’t need to worry about other animals getting infected with it. Even if a hunting dog eats a dead rabbit, they can’t catch it or get sick from it. People who hunt rabbits as a food source also don’t need to worry,” Mr MacLean said.

He said traditional rabbit management methods won’t be replaced by the virus, and recommends all land owners throughout Otago put a rabbit management plan in place straight away to make the most of the virus reducing rabbit numbers to a more manageable level.

ORC will release the virus at over 100 locations around Otago, and are working closely with a number of land owners to coordinate the release.

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