Irish Coursing Club licences have been suspended with immediate effect due to confirmed cases of Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) found in the wild.

The highly contagious disease does not affect humans, but is fatal to rabbits and hares. 

Cases have been confirmed in Co Wexford, Co Wicklow and Co Clare. 

There were confirmed cases of RHD in domesticated rabbits in Ireland last year, but this is the first time it has been confirmed in the wild.

RHD causes death within a few days and an affected animal will show signs of swollen eyelids, partial paralysis and bleeding from the eyes and mouth.

In the final stages of the infection, animals emerge from covered areas into open areas and are known to convulse or have a fit before finally dying. 

RHD can be spread directly between animals through faeces and urine of infected animals, as well as by insects and can be carried on human clothing.

The disease was first reported in China in 1984 and spread to Europe by 1986.

The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has warned of the potential impact RHD could have on the native Irish Hare population, saying: "The Irish hare is native to Ireland and found nowhere else and should this disease prove as infectious and lethal here as it has done elsewhere in Europe, the impact on the hare could be catastrophic."

Dr Ferdia Marnell, of the National Parks and Wildlife Service Scientific Unit, said: "Rabbits are central to wild ecosystems, being the main food for many predators from stoats to eagles that in turn regulate other animal populations.

"A decline in our wild rabbits will have numerous knock-on consequences. Of further concern is the potential for the disease to spread through the Irish hare population."

In a statement this evening, Minister Josepha Madigan said: "This is a serious development for the wild Irish hare and the decision to suspend the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club to capture and tag hares is in the best interests of animal welfare.

"I encourage members of the public to report any suspected cases to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. While there is no threat to human health, experts advise that this disease is highly contagious among rabbits and hares, and I am acting on this advice."

The public, particularly landowners, farmers, vets and the hare coursing community is being asked to be on high alert and to report any suspected sightings of diseased rabbits and hares as soon as possible to help efforts to monitor and control the disease.

The public can contact the NPWS by email at nature.conservation@chg.gov.ie. or call them on 1890 383 000.