WIGAN’S rabbit population is being wiped out by the worst outbreak of a killer disease in years.
A wildlife chief today confirmed that the borough is in the throes of a full-blown myxomatosis epidemic.
The deadly virus is sweeping through warrens across the area, taking advantage of the population growth this summer because ideal growing conditions have provided the mammals with an abundance of food.
Wigan wildlife monitors confirm that the numbers of diseased, dead and dying rabbits seen across the area are the highest for approaching two decades and numbers in their thousands have died.
However concerned nature lovers were assured today that the virus, which is carried by biting fleas, is species-specific and can’t harm other animals, such as squirrels.
Bio-diversity manager for Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust, Graham Workman said: “Myxomatosis has indeed raised its ugly head in a number of areas around Wigan this year, particularly Standish.
“I haven’t known it to be as bad as it is in Wigan for at least 15 years or more, it is really bad one this year.
“There is no doubt that it is quite disturbing to see.
“Because it has been such a good year with plenty of food around the population in the warrens exploded, new ones have been too close together and that is when the disease itself exploded again.
The alarm was raised by jogger Miles Bellas this week who told the Evening Post that he had been struck by the scarcity of rabbits he usually startles as he runs between Gidlow Cemetery and Arbour Lane in Standish.
Rabbits affected are easily recognised by blindness, bulging eyes, lesions and complete disorientation.
He said: “Often I jog around Standish at night and I used to see rabbits occasionally running around. I noticed quite a lot in the cemetery.
“But recently I haven’t seen any live ones, and the ones I have seen have shaking and very ill.
“They don’t move when people approach.
“It’s tragic and very strange to see, especially since I can’t do anything to prevent it.”
Mr Workman said that the virus is “always with us” although more diseased rabbits were being seen in Wigan this year because of the boom in the population due to the fine spring and summer.
Pressure of space has meant that warrens are closer together than they have been in recent years, leading to an easier spread of the disease by the fleas.
The virus was invented in a laboratory to wipe out wild rabbits in Australia that were ruining Australian veg crops 60 years ago.
Mr Workman added: “It is now endemic in our rabbit population, it is always with us but there are now some that can survive it and eventually, in say 2,000 years, they may well become immune to it, because that is nature.
“But we are certainly some way to go yet before we get to that situation.
“It was developed in Britain and taken out for trials in Australia to devastating effect.
“Myxomatosis was never licensed for release in Britain but someone obviously had a brother in Australia who sent the fleas over here half a century ago and the rest is history because it is now an international problem.
“It doesn’t species jump, though, so people don’t need to be concerned about that.”