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Many of us in the UK are pretty familiar with rabbits. This seemingly ubiquitous mammal is cute purveyor of Easter eggs to some, veg eating pest to others. But while familiarity might not breed contempt in all of us, it does mean that we probably often take rabbits somewhat for granted. However, with a fascinating history in the UK and some interesting adaptations, there is definitely more to these white-tailed hoppers than meets the eye. They are also currently facing a new threat in the form of a devastating virus. So, read on to find out more about the much maligned but actually quite remarkable rabbit.
The Social Lagomorph
European rabbits are members of the Lagomorpha order, which means ‘hare-like’. Globally, this group includes hares, rabbits and the vole-like pika. All are herbivores. Although superficially like our two other British lagomorphs, brown and mountain hares, rabbits are smaller than both. They also live communally, unlike the more solitary hares. Groups of up to 30 rabbits, although usually about 10, live in an underground system of burrows called a warren. The warren’s small entrances are effective protection from larger predators such as foxes and birds of prey. Warrens are especially important for newborn rabbits. This is because, in another difference from our two hare species, rabbits are born blind, deaf and almost completely hairless. As a result, they are extremely vulnerable.
Rabbits are usually predominantly greyish brown in colour. They have a short tuft of a tail with a white underside. When running away, this white shows clearly and may be a danger signal to other rabbits. To avoid predators, they do much of their grazing at night, with grass their preferred food. However, because plant fibre isn’t that easy to digest, they have an interesting, if slightly off-putting, adaptation to help them get as much nutrition from their food as possible. After food has passed through their system once, rabbits produce a type of soft pellet that still contains a lot of vital nutrients. So as not to miss out on all the available benefits of their food, they eat these pellets straight away. After this food has passed through the digestive system a second time, any indigestible material comes out as a hard, dry pellet.
Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit
Although rabbits are one of the commonest and easiest to see mammals here in the UK, they aren’t actually classed as native to Britain. In scientific terms, non-native animals are those that didn’t make it back here following the end of the last ice age (approximately 15,000 years ago) without human help. This is despite the fact rabbits almost certainly were here before the most recent period of glaciation. Research from the last few years suggests that the Romans brought the first post-ice age rabbits here. They were possibly just brought as pets. However, they weren’t present in any numbers until the Normans introduced them for fur and food in the 11th century. They were so important that many manor houses would have employed people specifically as warreners to maintain and look after their own rabbit warrens.
Now, they live just about everywhere in the UK. The exceptions are dense conifer plantations, very marshy areas and above the treeline on mountains. Their spread probably took place fairly slowly at first. However, it really took off in the 19th century due to changes in farming practices. Their ability to produce so many young aided this proliferation. During the January to August breeding season, females can have between three and seven babies every month. They are also sexually mature and able to breed from around only four months old. And unlike many mammals that can’t reproduce again until they stop lactating for the previous round of young, rabbits can get pregnant as soon as a litter is born. This fecundity means that even though about 90% of rabbits don’t make it to their first birthday, the species is theoretically able to keep numbers up and spread quickly. It also led to the phrase ‘to breed like rabbits’ to refer to anything reproducing prolifically.
Until the middle of the 20th century, all was pretty rosy in the rabbit garden. Everything changed, though, with the arrival of myxomatosis to Europe. This virus usually lives non-lethally in lagomorph species in Central and South America. However, it is lethal for European rabbits. The effects vary depending on the strain, but typically the eyes swell and weep, the animal becomes increasingly lethargic and breathing becomes difficult. It was deliberately introduced into a number of countries in the 1950s, including the UK, in an effort to control rabbit populations. The disease spread far faster than anyone anticipated, though, and 99% of the UK’s wild rabbits died within 2 years of the first cases here in 1953.
Fortunately, there is quite a lot of variation in terms of how immune European rabbits are to the disease. Research shows that natural selection quickly selected for genetically immune rabbits who in turn passed this trait on. This, coupled with their ability to breed like, ahem, rabbits, allowed some level of recovery here. The disease is still present, though, and animals do still die from this horrible virus. Worryingly, a newer disease called rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 (RHDV2) is now hitting the species. First recorded in France in 2010 in commercial rabbit farms, there are fears our rabbits won’t be as resilient to RHDV2 as myxomatosis, and waves of the disease are killing enormous numbers.
Some people might wonder why we need to worry about rabbits. They are often classed as agricultural pests, after all, eating crops, burrowing into land and producing baby after baby. As an introduced species, albeit a long time ago, they might also be seen as a non-priority species. However, views are changing. Conservationists are increasingly stressing the rabbit’s role in healthy ecosystems. Some even go as far as to call them a keystone species, one that is crucial for a particular ecosystem to exist. Part of this is down to forming an important part of many predators’ diets. In their native Iberia, in particular, large declines have had a devastating knock-on effect on two endangered species: the Iberian lynx and Spanish Imperial Eagle. Closer to home, they are important prey items for foxes, buzzards, stoats and many other predators.
Rabbits are not just important as food for others, though. Other species, such as the puffin, repurpose their burrows as nests. And the way they graze also shapes the environment, benefitting some of our rarest plant species. By favouring fast-growing grass species, they help other less aggressive plants to grow without being crowded out. Incredibly, they are also part of the complicated life cycle of a butterfly species once lost to the UK. Scientists hoping to restore the extinct large blue butterfly to England in the early 1980s discovered that rabbits would be crucial to their success. In fact, the rabbit population crash due to myxomatosis was a significant factor in the butterfly’s extinction here in the first place. Large blues’ caterpillars mimic a particular species of ant in order to persuade them to take them back to their colonies where they spend months growing and eating ant larvae. But the ants only exist where rabbits graze plants to a particular height. When the rabbits went, so did the ants and then the butterflies.
Despite turning up repeatedly in many of our best-loved stories, from the Easter Bunny to Watership Down, we are often guilty of taking the humble rabbit for granted. Its apparent ubiquity, coupled with its ability to reproduce rapidly, makes it is easy to assume they will always be here, and nothing can make a dent in their numbers. However, anyone who remembers the devastation of the 1950s knows this is not the case. And while they did slowly recover from this earlier disaster, new diseases are increasingly taking their toll. So, spare a thought for this underrated eco-system engineer. And let us hope it adapts to cope with these latest threats to its survival.
Woefully few books have been published for the general reader on rabbits and their ecology. However, much of the behaviour Richard Adams included in his classic novel was based on real observations by the naturalist Ronald Lockley. This means that despite the fact the rabbits are anthropomorphised, there is some genuine natural history included. The book is a classic of animal fiction.
Publisher Reaktion’s Animal books are a wonderful series. Each book centres on a single species or group of species, delving into their ecology and history. They also explore how humans have interacted with them and represented them culturally over time. The results are never less than fascinating, as is the case with the edition on rabbits.
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