Rod Liddle

It isn’t only rabbits who will suffer from the new surge of myxomatosis

Myxomatosis is back, with serious ecological implications

It isn’t only rabbits who will suffer from the new surge of myxomatosis
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Caught in the centre of a soundless field

While hot inexplicable hours go by
What trap is this? Where were its teeth concealed?
You seem to ask.
‘Myxomatosis’ by Philip Larkin

Aldbourne, Wiltshire

I saw the rabbit, a young doe, 50 yards or so down the path. ‘Look,’ I said to the kids, ‘a bunny.’ But even as I said the words, I knew that this would be a problematic encounter. The rabbit just sat there, its usual hair-trigger response to approaching danger apparently nullified. ‘A fairly stupid bunny,’ my oldest son pronounced, as we clumped closer to the creature and it still declined to bolt. ‘A very ill bunny,’ I told him. It didn’t move either when I stood over it, just remained aloof to the world, its eyes swollen and weeping, a hopeless bunny rabbit. It was in the last stages of its illness, wracked by pneumonia and fever, convulsed with lassitude, probably blind, maybe deaf too. What I should have done was kick it to death right there, but my getting a divorce was traumatic enough for the kids. I couldn’t inflict something like that on them, too. Beyond the line of oak and beech trees lining our path was open ground, above which a wake of buzzards soared and mewed; there were at least a dozen of them. They’d sort it all out quickly enough. After all, it’s probably why they were there.

Myxomatosis is a foul and cruel disease, bad enough even when you don’t have to explain its filthy human provenance to the kids. The suspicion right now is that it might be back with a vengeance. Our wild rabbit populations fluctuate hugely year on year but it is generally agreed that the creature has been in very sharp decline indeed over the past 15 years or so. Haemorrhagic fever took its toll in the early 1990s; now something else is responsible. Habitat loss, for sure — but myxomatosis is the likely culprit. Anecdotally, more and more cases are being reported in an ever-expanding breadth of southern England. The truth is that the disease never went away; the suspicion is that it is changing for the worse.

Myxomatosis was introduced to Australia first in 1938 and then, more devastatingly, in 1950 as a deliberate attempt to extinguish the alien rabbit population. A tough little virus specific only to rabbits and posing no danger to any other creature, least of all humans, it could be easily transmitted by fur mites, mosquitoes, rabbit fleas and the like. It did its job pretty well, reducing the rabbit population from 600 million to 100 million within a couple of years. The Australians continue their battle with the rabbits and have more recently used the haemorrhagic fever virus to do so. In 1952, meanwhile, a French idiot, an arse, a member of the French Academy of Medicine, Dr Paul Armand-Delille, deliberately introduced myxomatosis to rabbits on his private estate in France; somehow the virus got loose — Armand-Delille blamed poachers — and Europe’s rabbit population was soon stricken. Armand-Delille became a hero to French farmers and was honoured by the French government, rather than being suspended by his testicles over a vat of boiling oil, as my son said he believed to be the appropriate reward, once I’d told him all this stuff. By 1953 it had reached the UK, the first case discovered on a farm near Edenbridge in Kent. Supposedly no human involvement, save that of the hapless Armand-Delille, had resulted in its appearance in Britain and at first the Ministry of Agriculture attempted to contain the outbreak. To no great effect, however. Within a year or so, 99.5 per cent of Britain’s wild rabbits were rotting in the fields, or standing prone and listless, with bulging eyes, by the side of the road, waiting for an agreeable-looking truck to come along. An entire population virtually wiped out. The spread of the disease was encouraged by farmers back then: they would take diseased rabbits and stuff them in warrens not yet afflicted. One would hope that they are not doing the same sort of thing now, it being illegal these days.

The present increase in myxomatosis may be down to that ubiquitous culprit for everything, global warming. Anecdotally, again, there are more mosquitoes buzzing around in Britain than before and they are a perfectly respectable vector for myxomatosis. Even as I write this, the case of bluetongue in cattle in East Anglia is being blamed upon global warming; diseases are queuing up to strike down our animals, it would seem, and global warming is a plausible and politically expedient explanation. Well, maybe. But fleas are the main vector of myxomatosis in the UK — and experts reckon the most likely reason for the increase is both more sinister and more interesting. Since the 1950s, rabbits and the myxomatosis virus have been in a more or less continual state of adaptation to one another; as I mentioned earlier, the disease has never quite gone away, but merely existed in a subtly different form. That early mass liquidation of rabbits, its only host, was a strategic mistake by the virus which it has — if you will forgive the anthropomorphism — set about putting right in subsequent years. Clearly, killing its host so implacably and efficiently was an act of virtual suicide — so the virus mutated to become less of an onerous burden upon its rabbit hosts. At the same time, the few surviving rabbits had an advanced resistance to myxomatosis. And so, for the next quarter of a century, as the rabbit population climbed back steadily to its pre-1953 levels, the virus lay more or less dormant. Rabbits would frequently be afflicted, but often they would experience nothing more punitive than a nasty hangover, a few sniffles here or there, maybe a spot of conjunctivitis. In such a way it seemed as if the whole business had disappeared from view. But the thing is, viruses never stay the same; they adapt and survive and the fear is that the current strain of myxomatosis is much, much more virulent: this time, it means business once again. As one expert put it to me, displaying an unexpected penchant for the anthropomorphic himself, ‘It is attempting to reassert its dominance.’

Should we care? Sentimentalists like myself care because we don’t like the idea of one of our more charming mammals suffering in agony for 13 days before dying of a disease which we have inflicted upon them. It seems cruel and needless, a butterfly broken upon a wheel. But I daresay the farming community — and a good many others — may take a different point of view. The stricken creatures are, after all, only rabbits, once considered vermin. And no matter how virulent this particular strain, it is unlikely to lead to the extinction of the rabbit; hardy, adaptive little creatures that they are. And if we are to care excessively about their sensibilities, then we should look at the misery we inflict upon chickens, pigs, cows, etc. But even though the virus poses no direct danger higher up the food chain, a dramatic decline in the number of wild rabbits will have an enormous effect upon our indigenous wildlife. Take that wake of buzzards I mentioned earlier. A ‘myxie’ rabbit is, to the buzzard, a gift from the gods; a food parcel which cannot run, cannot hide, cannot hear the dark beating of wings behind its head, or feel the rush of air from the outstretched talons. The buzzards I saw last Saturday clearly could not believe their luck. But buzzards are notoriously short-termist; they lack a lateral perspective. The myxomatosis plague of 1953 almost did for them as well. Addicted to rabbits, they suddenly found their food supply vanished; so they too vanished from almost all of England and it is only in the last 15 to 20 years that they have re-established themselves on the chalk downlands and broad-leaved woodlands of southern Britain — and they are still in comparatively short supply north of the Wash.

And then there are those other creatures with a fondness for rabbit meat, the stoats. It is not often The Spectator bothers itself about stoat-welfare-related issues, I grant you. But the spread of myxomatosis throughout Europe placed on the endangered list a whole bunch of predators, pre-eminent among them being the Spanish lynx, which may soon become the first large feline to embrace extinction in nearly 2,000 years, directly as a result of its food supply being artificially removed. A renewed and vigorous outbreak of myxomatosis in Britain and Europe will not merely incommode the rabbits.