22 Mar 2017

'We're in the midst of a plague at the moment'

9:05 pm on 22 March 2017

The release of a much-anticipated new strain of rabbit virus is being delayed by at least a year because a regional council has not got the right approvals on time.

A file photo shows a rabbit in the grass in an unspecified part of New Zealand

Photo: 123RF

The strain, from Korea and known as K5, has been promoted as a major new weapon to control one of New Zealand agriculture's worst pests.

Farmers had been promised the release this autumn but the timetable was put back today until March 2018.

It was released in Australia a month ago.

The strain is hoped to be up to 40 percent more effective than the original calicivirus strain introduced illegally in 1997.

The Canterbury Regional Council (Environment Canterbury) has been co-ordinating the application on behalf of a broader group, known as the New Zealand Rabbit Coordination Group.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Authority ruled it did not need to regulate the new strain because the virus was already present in New Zealand, putting the onus onto the Ministry for Primary Industries to approve the release.

But one month later the ministry said it had not heard from the regional council.

'We're in the midst of a plague at the moment'

A meeting of the Otago Regional Council today was briefed on the release, and was told the ministry's public consultation would take more than two months, making it impossible to release the new virus this autumn, the most effective season.

Councillors were told the release group had made a pragmatic decision to delay because the regulatory processes had moved too slowly for an effective release this year.

Several councillors including Michael Laws criticised the delay.

Mr Laws told RNZ the regional councils and government agencies had let down rural communities.

"All of them, they're all in the same organisation and all of them have left it too late ... We're in the midst of a plague at the moment and they're not going to do another thing for another year."

"It's huge - the number one pest in Central Otago at the moment and here they are worrying about wallabies when the rabbits are every bit as bad as they were in the late 90s."

Mr Laws said too much attention was being paid to town-folk worried about little bunny rabbits being poisoned.

"It's one of those issues where the economic damage is just so great that the sensibilities of the urban view should not be allowed to predominate."

'Further work needed' - ECan

Environment Canterbury regional leader of biosecurity Graham Sullivan said the new release date of March 2018 was necessary because more work was needed to get the necessary approvals.

Mr Sullivan said it would give the releasing group time to learn valuable lessons from the Australian release.

He urged patience and support from landowners and farmers who were likely to benefit from the release.

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