Wild rabbits

Wild rabbits are one of the most serious agricultural and environmental pests in New Zealand. Learn about measures in place to control their spread.

The problem

Rabbits have been a constant source of trouble for New Zealand since they were first introduced in the 1830s. It's previously been estimated that rabbits cost New Zealand over $50 million in lost production, plus a further $25 million in direct pest control a year.

Wild rabbits:

  • compete with livestock for pasture by eating the best grass
  • cause extensive land damage from burrowing, making farming land useless
  • cause public nuisance and damage to public and private property.

Ongoing management of wild rabbits is essential to New Zealand's economy and environment.

Managing rabbit numbers

New Zealand has a long history of rabbit control. The main methods used to control rabbits are shooting, poisoning, fumigation of burrows, and rabbit-proof fencing. An introduced virus (Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus) also reduces rabbit numbers.

Under the Biosecurity Act, MPI has a role facilitating coordination among those involved in rabbit control (such as the Rabbit Coordination Group). We also support development of rabbit control tools through funding programmes.

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV)

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus – also known as rabbit calicivirus - is a virus used as a pest control tool to reduce the number of wild rabbits. It affects the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Rabbits are infected with the virus which then spreads through the population. Once a rabbit shows symptoms, it dies quickly.

Rabbits get the virus:

  • from direct contact with other rabbits – through their eyes, nose and mouth
  • from flies, fleas, and possibly some mosquitos, which can carry the virus.

Urine, faeces and respiratory secretions may also shed the virus.

Rabbit calicivirus doesn't affect other animals

Calicivirus is a family of virus and there are several types. The 2 most common types in New Zealand are rabbit calicivirus (also known as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus) and feline calicivirus – which affects cats.

These 2 viruses are completely different and don't jump between species. Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV) only affects rabbits, it doesn't present a danger to cats, dogs or any other type of animal.

Rabbits are becoming immune to RHDV1

A Czech strain of RHDV1 strain was illegally introduced to New Zealand in 1997, after an application for its import was declined. Initially, the virus caused a fast and large drop in rabbit numbers. However, in the 20 years since it was first introduced, New Zealand's wild rabbits have become increasingly immune to the RHDV1 strain.

Recent developments – a new variant

In February 2017 the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) released their decision on an application under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act. The application was for approval to use a product containing a new variant of RHDV – referred to as RHDV1 K5.

Approval to use the virus would now need to come from MPI under the Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines (ACVM) Act and the Biosecurity Act. The virus can't be imported or used without MPI's approval.

MPI hasn't received an application yet.

RHDV1 K5 is a new strain, but it is not a new virus. It's a Korean strain of the existing RHDV1 virus – already widespread in New Zealand and specific to the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus).

Protect pet rabbits from Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus

If you have a pet rabbit, there is a vaccine to prevent it from getting the existing RHDV1 strain of the virus. It's recommended you vaccinate rabbits at 10 to 12 weeks of age, with an annual booster vaccination to keep them protected. Talk to your vet for more information.

Funding programmes

MPI continues to support the development of humane and effective pest control tools. Since 2012, through the Sustainable Farming Fund, MPI has provided funding for 3 projects relating to rabbit control.

2016 to 2017 funding round

Release strategy for improved RHDV strains to maximise the benefits of rabbit biocontrol

  • Landcare Research (on behalf of Waikari Pest Management Liaison Committee). 
  • MPI committed funding up to $240,000 (grant number 404961). $11,900 has been paid to date for this 3-year project.

2012 to 2013 funding round

Rabbit biocontrol initiative: better RHDV strains for improved rabbit control in NZ

  • Landcare Research (on behalf of Waikari Pest Management Liaison Committee). 
  • MPI provided $480,000 (grant number 12/055) for this 3-year project.

Refining operational practices for controlling rabbits on agricultural lands

  • Landcare Research (on behalf of the Rabbit Coordination Group). 
  • MPI provided $330,000 (grant number 12/058) for this 3-year project.

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Who is involved in rabbit control?

Several agencies are responsible for rabbit control work including:

Rabbit Coordination Group

The Rabbit Coordination Group brings key organisations together to improve our management of rabbits in New Zealand. The group includes representatives from regional councils, Federated Farmers, Department of Conservation, Land Information New Zealand, and MPI (and we also provide a secretariat function).

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