Hares could be wiped out, experts warn, as a spate in mystery deaths have sparked fears that a highly infectious disease has "jumped" from rabbits.
David Wembridge, Peoples Trust for Endangered Species Survey Officer, warned that if Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) or Myxomatosis spreads to non-resistant hares for the first time, the animals could be virtually eradicated in a couple of years.
Myxomatosis first reached the UK in 1953 after it was introduced as a control measure in Kent, but inadvertently resulted in the deaths of 99 percent of the rabbit population only three years later.
There are now renewed fears that the potentially fatal viral disease caused by blood sucking insects is behind the mysterious surge in the recent deaths of hares in Suffolk and Norfolk.
The hares, which are larger than rabbits and have longer hind legs, are also at risk from RHD-2, a difficult to diagnose haemorrhagic disease that "got into the wild big-time in the last three years".
Mr Wembridge said: "It is not thought that hunting has a big effect on the population, but the hare population is not so robust that it would be able to take a really big loss in numbers- the disease in rabbits nearly wiped out their population in the 1950s . Until resistance spread in rabbits it had a major impact on them.