The rabbit crouched, shivering by the edge of the road. As soon as I saw it, I knew it had myxomatosis. I stopped the car beside it; it didn’t move. Blind, miserable and lethargic, it was dying. There are few more pitiful sights in the countryside, and, out of pity, I killed it. Myxomatosis has been the constant curse of the rabbit since it was introduced to the UK in 1953. Fleas and mosquitoes spread the disease, and the recent wet and humid conditions have been perfect for them. It hangs like death over the rabbit population and local outbreaks are commonplace, but, over time, it’s become clear that the animals have built up some immunity to the disease.
Certainly, the total number of rabbits is now at its highest since the 1950s, when it is estimated that as many as 100 million perished from the disease. But this summer, as anyone driving around the countryside will have noticed, there has been a bigger outbreak than for many years. There is no doubt that the rabbit is a terrible pest to gardeners and farmers, and numbers do need to be controlled, but it is a sickening thought that the disease is so cruel. If you find a rabbit suffering, you should be kind and put it out of its misery.