Government Response To The Outbreak Of RCD

  • Simon Upton
Associate Minister of Local Government

Faced with the reality that the illegally introduced RCD virus is clearly established in the South Island, the Government will move to legalise its ongoing spread, Hon Simon Upton, announced today.

The Government is clear that there are compelling reasons to act swiftly. These include the need to:

  • provide clear advice on how to handle the virus safely and effectively,
  • assist the Department of Conservation in its efforts to protect threatened native species from predators deprived of their regular rabbit prey
  • monitor any risks to humans and other non-target species.

"Without legalisation the Government and the public are left in the dark as to what is going on. That is not a satisfactory state of affairs," Mr Upton said.

The Government therefore intends to pass regulations under the Biosecurity Act to make it legal to possess RCD. Such regulations would not retrospectively legalise the actions of farmers who have spread RCD to date. In the Ministry of Agriculture's view a distinction can and should be drawn between the person or persons involved in the importation and initial distribution of the virus, and those involved in subsequent spread, after it had been replicated in New Zealand rabbits and became established over a wide area.

"Given the need to move swiftly to place the spread of the virus on a managed basis, interested parties will have one week from Wednesday 10 September in which to comment on the need for and intent of such regulations," Mr Upton said.

The Minister said he had spoken to Federated Farmers' High Country Committee Chairman and the National President of Federated Farmers prior to this announcement. They had indicated their willingness to work with the Ministry of Agriculture.

"I have instructed MAF to organise a series of meetings with farmers, Landcare groups, DOC and other interested parties to co-ordinate the collection of information and to provide a forum for the ongoing dissemination of current and future information."

The decision to manage the illegally imported virus, rather than resort to a fresh importation, flowed from MAF's analysis, in consultation with independent experts in virology, which indicated that importation of a 'pure' strain was not justified.

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Technical reasons against the importation of the Australian RCD seed-stock

  • the strain of virus being released in New Zealand is clearly virulent - ie. killing rabbits
  • there is no evidence suggesting that the Australian strain would be any more effective than the current South Island farmers' "Kitchen Whiz" strain either as a biocontrol agent, spreading naturally without man's intervention, or as a biocide where it kills rabbits which eat infected bait
  • providing farmers only select livers from rabbits that have died of RCD there is likely to be no difference in effectiveness between "Kitchen Whiz" strain and the Australian strain
  • the presence of an avirulent (harmless) strain in Australia has been suspected; however it is equally likely that an avirulent strain may have already been present in New Zealand prior to the illegal introduction of RCD
  • the virulent virus affects the liver while the avirulent strain is reported to affect the gastrointestinal tract
  • while avirulent strains are believed to occur in many countries there are no records of virulent strains losing their effectiveness to become avirulent
  • while the probability is very low, it is possible that if there is an avirulent strain in Australia it could be present in the Australian seed-stock
  • even virulent strains will not kill all rabbits and traditional control methods are needed to kill survivors
  • Australian virus is not available for immediate release - it is only available as seed-stock and would need to be multiplied before being distributed and released
  • multiplication of the virus in New Zealand would take at least four months and possibly much longer if the product needs to be registered as a pesticide
  • even if the Australian seed-stock was imported, multiplied and released, it would not displace the New Zealand strain already well distributed in the South Island
  • importing the Australian seed stock would not change the other biosecurity risks that we have already been exposed to by the illegal importation