Rabbits are renowned as prolific breeders. Females are fertile at 3-8 months old and have a gestation period of around a month. They give birth to a litter of 4-12 kits and may be ready to mate again the next day. This, combined with the fact that they can breed throughout the year, means that in the right conditions, populations can grow rapidly, hence the expression ‘breeding like rabbits’. This proved disastrous when 13 rabbits were introduced into Australia in the 19th century where, in the absence of suitable predators, they spread across the continent in 50 years, devastating crops and the natural environment alike.
Rabbits, originally native to Iberia, spread around the continent in Antiquity and were introduced into the British Isles first by the Romans and then the Normans, as a source of meat and fur. In places, artificially built warrens were looked after by warreners, so landowners had a constant supply. Warren and coney (the old name for rabbits) crop up in numerous place names around the country as a result. Of course, rabbits are perfectly capable of making their own burrows, using their sharp claws to dig into the ground, often under sheltering scrub. From there they will venture out to feed. They have virtually 360% vision, as befits a prey species, and are always on the lookout for threats. Their white tail, or scut, provides a flashing warning sign to others when running for cover.
A sizeable colony can have quite an impact on the grassland in vicinity of the burrows, creating a closely-cropped turf, benefiting mining bees and wasps as well as herbs that cannot compete in a longer sward. Rabbits provide food for a number of species that prey upon them, including stoats, buzzards, polecats and foxes.
When we moved to Tisbury, we were struck by the absence of rabbits in the surrounding countryside. Although rabbit numbers have been increasing each spring, populations keep getting knocked back by autumn, perhaps due to diseases: myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease. When the former was first introduced to this country in the 1950s, it wiped out most of the population, since then its impact has reduced but stays active. What impact the dearth of rabbits in this area has on the breeding success of its predators? I am afraid that for the immediate future, the rabbits we are most likely to see locally are the Easter Bunnies on Easter cards (how rabbits became associated with this is an entirely different question!).
P.S. In Weymouth we were encouraged to use the term bunny in deference to Portland superstitions about use of the R word. I hope any readers from Portland have not been too traumatised by this article.
by Andrew Graham
[editor - with apologies for the late upload this month]
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