Application for improved rabbit biocontrol

Environment Canterbury announced that it will be seeking permission on behalf of a co-ordinating group to release a new variant of rabbit haemorrhagic disease.

The new variant, known as RHDV1 K5, has already been approved for registration in Australia. The Australian release of RHDV1 K5 is planned between March and June 2017.

Graham Sullivan, Environment Canterbury Regional Leader Biosecurity, said RHDV1 K5 is a potentially significant biological control tool for pest rabbits in New Zealand. “While exact figures are unknown, it is expected that there will be improved knockdown in areas where the current strain of RHDV is less effective,” he said.

RHDV1 K5 is a Korean strain of the existing RHDV1 virus that already widespread in New Zealand. “It was selected for release in Australia because it can better overcome the protective effects of the benign calicivirus (RCA-A1) which naturally occurs in the feral rabbit populations in both Australia and New Zealand,” Mr Sullivan said.

Replacing the existing virus with a new strain may help overcome resistance to old virus. “RHDV1 K5, like other RHDV1 variants, only infects the European rabbit and no other species,” he said.

“RHDV1 K5 is expected to boost the effects of the existing RHDV1 strain and help slow the increase in rabbit numbers. There is a vaccine to protect pet rabbits and the ministry for Primary Industries will confirm that this vaccine will be effective against the new strain. There are no human health risks associated with RHDV.”

A controlled release will ensure that a higher quality commercially prepared product is made available and that the release can be appropriately managed and monitored. “This approach will increase the likelihood of success and maximise benefits to farmers and the environment,” Mr Sullivan said.

“RHDV1 K5 is not the silver bullet for rabbit eradication in New Zealand,” Graham Sullivan concluded. “A long-term, integrated approach to controlling pest rabbits is required.”


The New Zealand Rabbit Coordination Group (RCG) is co-ordinating the approvals processes for RHDV1 K5. RCG includes representatives from regional and district councils, Federated Farmers, the Department of Conservation, the Ministry for Primary Industries and Land Information New Zealand. Environment Canterbury is the applicant for the approvals on behalf of the RCG.

Three statutory approvals are required to register, import and release RHDV1 K5 in New Zealand:

• A Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) approval
• Registration under the Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines Act (ACVM)
• An unwanted organism permission under sections 52 and 53 the Biosecurity Act (BSA).

The programme for securing the relevant approvals is targeted towards release in May/June 2017. This aligns with the proposed Australian release timing and is also when biological conditions are likely to be most favourable.

Completing the approval process before release is important to fully realising the benefits of the biological control and will minimise the risk of potential illegal and/or uncontrolled releases. Completing the approvals process will also ensure that a higher quality commercially prepared product can be made available and that the release can be appropriately managed and monitored.

A HSNO application was submitted to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in September 2016 and is currently being processed. The required applications for the ACVM and BSA approvals are due to be submitted this month (February 2017).

The approvals process is being run in parallel with a Landcare Research Sustainable Farming Fund project to prepare a release strategy for RHDV1-K5. This will help participating regional and district councils to effectively release RHDV1 K5 in rabbit-prone areas. The strategy will also include pre and post release monitoring to measure impacts and inform future research.