WILD rabbits and their predators are being wiped out by a deadly new strain of virus, research shows.
A study, Where Have All the Rabbits Gone?, found that there could be as little as only £1m wild rabbits left in Scotland as a result of the latest form of haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV).
Researchers from the James Hutton Institute (JHI) in Invergowrie near Dundee are fearing that the new strain could prove as big a killer as myxomatosis – a fatal disease that causes swelling to rabbits membranes.
Experts suspect there are less than £4m wild rabbits in the whole of the UK due to the latest highly contagious RHDV strain.
During the height of myxomatosis in the 1950’s figures fell to a similar level.
The new research monitored five farms across Scotland and England over 30 years and found significant decline in numbers sighted and shot.
On one site, numbers were down from more than 300 rabbits to just 15.
Researchers said that findings from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust between 1995 and 2009 suggest declines of up to 90%.
Although the type 2 variant was not reported in Scotland until 2014, JHI fear it is the reason behind the downward trend.
Unlike myxomatosis, RHDV shows no signs therefore animals can drop dead at any time even when appearing healthy.
The figures are thought to be good news for farmers who lose millions of pounds a year due to crop damage caused by rabbits.
However, the decline threatens the survival of their predators including buzzard and stoat.
The British Trust for Ornithology reported a 20% fall in the number of buzzards in Scotland between 2003 and 2013.
JHI research associate Dr Brian Boag said: “The numbers could be similar to that seen after myxomatosis where numbers of buzzard, stoat and fox fell.”
He added that the decline “may have already hit predators in Scotland.
In Spain, the Spanish Imperial eagle and the European lynx are now endangered as a result of reduced rabbit numbers.