Monday, October 08, 2007

Pity the Rabbits

I like rabbits. Not as pets, where they are a waste of perfectly good carrots. Instead, I like to see them hopping around misty fields first thing in the morning and making the countryside seem full of life. I am also extremely fond of casseroling them although for eating it is better to search out a French farmed rabbit instead of the English wild ones that the local farmers practically give away.

Late last week, I had to catch a train into London, but the car park at the station was full, as usual. No problem for me as I knew a little country lane where I could leave my car for free. After my business in town, I walked back down the little lane towards my car and saw a rabbit ahead. Strangely, it ignored me. When I got really close, it hopped forlornly around my feet without making any effort to get away. This was clearly a very unhappy bunny.

Next day, the set up was the same and with my car parked in the lane, I was walking back up towards the station. There was my rabbit again, but this time it was a great deal thinner. Standing in the middle of the road had led to its inevitable meeting with a car (mine, for all I know). I've seen plenty of squashed animals but this one was quite disturbing. Its eye, which I hadn't seen from above the night before, was swollen up and completely closed by a pink callous. Death by tyre had been merciful.

It was not until later that I learnt the terrible truth about my rabbit. The excellent Rod Liddle, one of my favourite journalists, had had a similar encounter and he knew what it meant. Myxomatosis is back. It arrived in the 1950s when it wiped out most of the English rabbit population, not to mention many of the animals that feed on rabbits and can't get hold of the French farmed ones. Liddle has set out the horrible details of this disease in his article so I won't repeat them here. The resurgence of myxomatosis is evolution in action. The few rabbits that survived the 1950s outbreak had a high degree of immunity. The virus survived but only gave them a bad dose of flu rather than a lingering death. But the genome of the virus has been clicking away like a rubic cube looking for the combination that will get it past the rabbit's immunity. Rabbits may breed like rabbits, but they have nothing on a virus. It was only a matter of time.

Now, they are dying. My wife has noticed it even if the news media has not. No one knows how bad it will get but it is likely that the misty mornings will be still next summer. And if you see a rabbit transfixed in your headlights, running it over is probably the kindest thing you could do.

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