A RABBIT virus has been confirmed in two dead hares discovered in Dorset.

It is the first time the virus has affected the under-threat mammals in the UK.

Researchers said they are not able to release the exact location the adult and leveret - both females - were found due to hare coursing security purposes, but it was in the Bridport area.

A dead hare from Essex was also found to have the disease, known as rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2).

Now, researchers are urging residents to report any sightings of dead or dying hares so that they can track the disease.

Nationally, brown hares have experienced a decline of more than 80 per cent over the past century due to changes in agricultural practice. The intensification of agriculture has limited their supply of food and habitat.

But concerns about new diseases were raised after landowners, farmers and other members of the public started reporting sightings of obviously sick and dead hares in September 2018.

The mammals are larger than rabbits, with longer hind legs and black-tipped ears that are as least as long as their heads.

The research was led by Dr Diana Bell at the University of East Anglia, who worked with diagnostic laboratories in England, Scotland and Germany.

Dr Bell said: “RHDV2 normally affects rabbits, but the disease is known to have jumped to European brown hares in Italy, Spain, France and Australia.

“This is the first time that RHDV2 has been found in hares in the UK.

“RHDV2 is one of several pathogens we are finding in dead hares and it is too early to say which is currently the primary cause of the hare die-off. We are continuing to investigate other causes for the deaths.”

She added: “We are enormously grateful for the continuing tremendous response from the British public in reporting dead hares to us and helping us collect them for post mortems. This is good example of citizen science.

“Hare deaths are still being reported to us and we are still collecting the bodies to test for RHDV2 and other pathogens that could be contributing to the decline.

“It’s still too early to say which diseases are most common at the moment but the expanding dataset will allow us to map reported mortalities over time.”

The research team are continuing to collect dead hares for post mortem. If you find a freshly dead hare please report it to Dr Bell by emailing d.bell@uea.ac.uk