Hares in Essex and Dorset found with rabbit virus
Brown hares across the UK have been found with a disease that usually only affects rabbits, scientists say.
The first cases of rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2) were found in dead hares in Essex and Dorset.
A team of researchers led by the University of East Anglia's Dr Diana Bell identified the virus after receiving several reports of sick and dead hares last year.
Dr Bell confirmed: "This is the first time RHDV2 has been found in UK hares."
The university joined forces with Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex Wildlife Trusts, DEFRA and the APHA Surveillance Intelligence Unit after farmers, landowners and members of the public raised concerns about ill hares in the East of England last October.
Dr Bell said it was a "good example of citizen science" and she was "enormously grateful" to the people reporting the ongoing deaths.
She added: "RHDV2 is one of several pathogens we are finding in dead hares but it is too early to say which is currently the primary cause of the hare die-off.
"We are still collecting bodies to test for other pathogens that could be contributing to the decline.
"The expanding dataset will allow us to map reported mortalities over time."
Dr Bell confirmed that the virus "normally affects rabbits" but said the disease "is known to have jumped to European brown hares in Italy, Spain, France and Australia".
The findings were confirmed in research which will be published in Vet Record on Friday.
Nationally, brown hares have experienced a decline of more than 80% over the past century due to changes in agricultural practice.