Rabbit deaths spark fear of deadly disease outbreak on Hampstead Heath

Sightings of rabbit carcasses with signs of a deadly disease have sparked an investigation into a possible outbreak of a lethal virus on Hampstead Heath.

�Sightings of rabbit carcasses with signs of a deadly disease have sparked an investigation into a possible outbreak of a lethal virus on Hampstead Heath.

Park authorities have launched a fact-finding mission following reports of dead rabbits near Kenwood House and Jack Straw’s Castle. The Ham&High has also received eyewitness accounts of rabbits with swollen eyes sitting very still around the Heath – symptoms of myxomatosis.

There are fears the lethal strand could spread to pet rabbits around Hampstead. The disease is near incurable and almost always leads to an agonising death for the affected rabbits.

‘Dying slowly’

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Park user Maureen Rose, who has seen a few of the afflicted rabbits, said: “They’re dying slowly and the crows are picking them off. It should serve as warning for people to be aware that if they traipse around on the Heath with their dogs, fleas could transfer from the rabbits to their pets and be taken home with them.

“There could be a complete outbreak – an epidemic.

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“Rabbits are often a first or second pet for children and it would be pretty soul-destroying to lose a pet to myxomatosis.’’

Head vet at the Village Vet in Hampstead, Sean McInnes, said the recent heatwave could be to blame, with mosquitoes and fleas spreading the disease between animals. But he said his surgery has not yet treated any pet rabbits with the condition.

“Most rabbits these days are confined to more narrow yards and there’s not too much rabbit-to-rabbit contact. But if you are living near the Heath and some wild rabbits come into the garden, physical contact is definitely possible and that’s difficult to guard against,” he told the Ham&High.

Rabbit owners can get their pets vaccinated every six months which provides a partial protection against the disease.

Rangers are removing any dead rabbits from the Heath and ask park users to report any further sightings.

Hampstead Heath Superintendent Simon Lee said: “The rabbit population is fairly large on the Heath at the moment and cases of myxomatosis are very rare here.

“We understand that there may be a small number of rabbits that have the condition and we are currently investigating all reports.

“We would like to encourage the public to notify Hampstead Heath staff if they do spot dead rabbits so that we may record sightings to monitor their numbers.”

People are asked to call 0207 332 3322 to report a sighting.

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