British Wildlife of the Week
With Easter now approaching, The Nature Nook is going to be taking a look at a few animals that are closely associated with this springtime holiday. The first to take centre stage is the European rabbit, which I’m sure we’ve all seen hopping around the countryside at one time or another. Perhaps unforgivably, rabbits weren’t included on Alex’s recent list of the cutest British animals, but they are undeniably adorable. And more than that, they have had a huge impact on our landscape, our wildlife, and even our lives over the centuries, as we will later see…
Go Forth and Multiply
Although rabbits and hares are sometimes thought to be rodents, they are actually lagomorphs (from the Greek lagos, meaning ‘hare’, and morphē, meaning ‘form’). Three species of lagomorph live in Britain today. However, only one – the mountain hare, which in many places turns white in winter – is considered native. The brown hare – our fastest land mammal; it can reach speeds of over 70 kph – was introduced to Britain from the continent at least 2,000 years ago, presumably as a source of food. Since then, it has partially displaced its smaller, mountain-dwelling relative.
Unbeknownst to many, the story of the ‘Easter bunny’ derives from the brown hare (more on that next week), but rabbits are nonetheless still closely associated with Easter and spring in general. This is because late winter and spring are peak season for breeding. And boy can rabbits breed!
The phrase ‘breeding like rabbits’ is no exaggeration. When conditions suit them, they really are exceptionally fecund animals. A female rabbit can produce a litter every five or six weeks from February through to August, with each litter consisting of four to twelve young. She can become pregnant again within a day or two of giving birth so that more embryos begin developing inside her even as she continues nursing her current litter. Young rabbits develop rapidly and can reproduce for themselves at just four months old. Babies born early in the season, therefore, can have their own young in the same year. But rabbits need to be such prodigious breeders because 70-95% of them perish within their first few months of life.
Rise and Fall
A native of Spain, Portugal, France and northwest Africa, the European rabbit was introduced to the British Isles by settlers long ago. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that they were first brought over during the Roman occupation of Britain, but later died out and were reintroduced by the Normans in the 12th century. Viewed as a rapidly-reproducing and convenient source of fur and meat, they were originally kept in fenced enclosures called ‘warrens’ (a term that nowadays refers to any rabbit colony and its interconnected burrow system). The warrens were carefully guarded to protect the valuable rabbits from both predators and human thieves.
However, being that rabbits are excellent diggers, escapes were inevitable. Perhaps surprisingly, though, rabbits remained relatively scarce for hundreds of years. Numbers only began to rise significantly in the 18th and 19th centuries. This was partly due to a major change in farmland management: hedgerows created to enclose farms for the first time provided rabbits with ideal shelter from weather and danger, while bigger fields of crops created a seemingly endless supply of food for them. Meanwhile, their main predators had either been hunted to extinction, as in the case of the wolf and the lynx, or were rapidly declining. As the populations of foxes, martens, stoats and birds of prey fell, so the numbers of rabbits skyrocketed, up to an estimated 50-100 million – easily outnumbering the human population of the UK at the time.
By the middle of the 20th century, the rabbit had gone from being a valued resource to Britain’s most serious mammalian pest, doing more economic damage annually than rats and mice combined. Then suddenly, in 1953, everything changed. The disease myxomatosis, which had already been intentionally introduced to other parts of the world where non-native rabbits were seen as destructive pests, reached the UK. It was encouraged as a highly effective rabbit bio-control measure, with diseased rabbits being deliberately introduced to the burrows of wild ones.
Myxomatosis devastated our rabbit population, leading to the slow and painful deaths of many millions of animals. Just two years later, over 99% of all rabbits in Britain were dead, leaving vast areas of the countryside virtually rabbit-free.
The survivors, however, developed greater resistance to the disease. And because rabbits are supremely good at making more rabbits, their population has recovered. So how many rabbits are hopping around the British countryside today?
The Rare Rabbit?
It is often said that Britain is home to between 35 and 45 million rabbits, but recent research indicates that this may be an overestimate. A 2018 BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) survey suggests that rabbit numbers in the UK have declined by 60% in the last 20 years or so. This is probably due to agricultural intensification, a surge in predator populations that were once much rarer, and the outbreak of further deadly diseases such as rabbit haemorrhagic disease.
To some people, this is no great loss; they already view rabbits as pests and vermin that should be exterminated. Rabbits can, it is true, do serious damage to farmland crops, and they can occasionally have a negative effect on some of our nature reserves due to their overgrazing. But in many other places, a self-sustaining population of rabbits is very important. Now a major part of our ecosystems, they have become a vital food source for predators such as foxes, badgers, stoats and birds of prey. Their grazing can also help maintain threatened habitats such as chalk grasslands, which are home to many rare butterflies and plants, much better than humans can. In short, they have become a superb conservation tool. In some locations, if you took rabbits out of the picture, entire ecosystems might collapse.
What was once regarded as an exotic animal and a major economic asset is now often seen as a serious pest that has long outstayed its welcome. But the rabbit is undoubtedly here to stay. It is a native species in all but name and is now a very familiar, and perhaps crucial, part of the British countryside. The health of a local rabbit population underpins a web of plant and insect life, and they exert considerable influence on agriculture and natural habitats through grazing and burrowing. Rather than being vermin, these underappreciated animals are now, in my opinion, keystone species. They’ve become ecosystem engineers – and cute, fluffy, charismatic ones at that.
Speaking of ‘ecosystem engineers’, keep an eye out for an article on the biggest non-human eco engineer of all – the beaver – in the near future. But before then, in our next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at the rabbit’s larger, more elusive relative, and the original Easter Bunny – the brown hare.