The picture above shows a rabbit (sorry picture upside-down – don’t know why) suffering from a viral disease called myxomatosis. When taking my dog on the Humber Bank and to the car-park at South Ferriby Sluice we encounter an active local wild rabbit population, but yesterday saw one suffering as above. Myxomatosis causes a lingering death across two to fourteen days, a considerable period of time in the lifespan of a rabbit. Swellings appear around the head, particularly the eyes, leading to blindness, and the animal becomes listless, feverish, unaware of its surroundings and death is usually caused by a secondary infection in the weakened body such as pneumonia. The disease is spread by physical contact or by flea-bites, the fleas immune but acting as carriers. The parallel with the spread of bubonic plague, so devastating to human populations in the medieval and early modern eras, is clear.
Myxomatosis is/was a form of biological ‘pest’ control deliberately introduced into a population. The virus, first discovered in a South American laboratory in the late 19th century, was deliberately introduced by the Australian government in 1950, the French government in 1953, and in 1954 the virus ‘reached’ Britain and its spread was ‘encouraged’.
Recently in Japan a number of criminals were executed for releasing Sarin nerve agent into a crowded area – once released, Sarin is a free-ranging biological (presumably) killer, like myxomatosis.
Culling, on the other hand and if administered properly, is a form of ‘pest’ control that should deliver a quick death, that can be applied in local areas (have a controlled distribution) and which can be ended as deliberately as begun. The recent badger cull in the south-west, whether one agrees with that particular action or not, being a case in point. Personally, currently, I believe that a case can be put for localised culling of magpies, grey squirrels and ‘free-ranging’ domestic cats.
Since the mid 20th century wild rabbit populations have evolved a degree of resistance to myxomatosis, although those that die still die a lingering death – fortunately, for our tender sensitivities, in underground burrow networks, ‘out of sight, out of mind’.