The rabbit

David Chapman / 28 March 2019

The rabbit has charmed generations with its many iterations in children's literature, but it is not always a welcome guest in gardens.



I would like to say that my wife and I welcome all wildlife into our garden with open arms, but hand-on-heart I would find it difficult to say that about the subject of this month’s feature, the rabbit.

I love rabbits and we both take real pleasure out of watching them in our garden. They have a lot of character with a variety of behavioural traits including grooming, thumping, jumping and running in circles. Their downside is the damage they do to our flowerbeds. We try to tackle it by fencing off our most prized areas, we also have very high raised beds which are usually immune to trouble and we continually try to find plants that rabbits don’t eat (but there aren’t many!).

Spring is our most challenging time. Young bunnies, or kits, are born and we can have up to a dozen rabbits on our modest-sized lawn. The positive side is that I only needed to mow the grass four times last summer but I was a little surprised to read the Mammal Society press release last year which among the obviously threatened species like red squirrel, wildcat and water vole listed the rabbit as globally threatened.

Evidently the rabbit population of the UK has fallen by 9% since 1995, though it still stands at 36 million. If rabbit numbers continue to fall it could have a negative impact on predators higher up the food chain such as stoats, ravens and buzzards but it could also have a detrimental effect on lots of wildflower meadows across the country which are managed to some extent by the grazing of rabbits.


The rabbit’s history in the UK

The rabbit hasn’t always been numerous in the UK, our association dates back to Roman times. Originally the European rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, came from south west Europe and north west Africa but the Romans discovered that they were a good source of meat and fur so took them into captivity and spread them across their empire.

There can be no doubt that further introductions have taken place since those times and the Normans were a big part of that. In mediaeval Britain rabbits were kept by monks in cunicularia near to their monasteries. These were probably just glorified hutches but as rabbit breeding became more commercial large-scale warrens were created. Pillow-shaped mounds of earth were banked on stone-built tunnels where the rabbits could live happily together. Many places where rabbits were kept still have ‘warren’ in their names.

Lifestyle of the rabbit

Most rabbits live underground. They certainly need to give birth in a protective environment because, unlike hares, rabbits are altricial, which means their young are born blind and bald. In each litter there can be as many as 12 kits and a doe rabbit can raise as many as 6 litters each year though a more typical total for the year is probably between 10 and 20 young from each doe. Still this is quite a rate of reproduction and the rabbit is certainly known for its fecundity, the phrase ‘breed like rabbits’ does have some foundation in fact.

Myxomatosis

One incredible illustration of the rabbit’s ability to breed given ideal conditions was seen in 19th century Australia. In 1859 twenty four rabbits were introduced to one location in Australia and, partly because of a lack of natural predators, within one hundred years there were an estimated 600 million of them. This led to the use of a biological control being introduced to attempt to control their number. During the 1950s myxomatosis was introduced to the rabbit population in Australia, and this was spread amongst the rabbits by a biting insect. It had an immediate impact on the population but the rabbits that survived built up immunity to this horrible disease. Now another disease, which causes haemorrhaging in rabbits, has been given clearance as a biological control in Australia.

The number of rabbits in Britain increased dramatically around the beginning of the 20th century and many people began to regard them as pests. Myxomatosis was introduced into France in 1952 and seems to have made its own way into Kent in 1953. At first scientists tried to contain the disease but it soon spread and wiped out maybe as many as 99% of the British population. They have since recovered to an extent but continue to be affected every few years. We now also have two strains of rabbit haemorrhagic disease, also developed as a rabbit control in Australia, the latter strain was found as recently as 2010 and this one can cross to other species so will probably affect brown and mountain hares.

Rabbits in literature and superstition

Despite the problems it causes the rabbit remains one of our most popular and loved creatures in literature. The time-obsessed white rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit are just two early examples of the use of rabbits in literature, and more recently we have seen Thumper in Bambi, Bugs Bunny and Watership Down.

The Celts believed the rabbit to be a link between the living and the dead, communicators with the underworld, a belief reinforced by the fact that rabbits lived underground and were only seen when they came out into daylight. We have long been obsessed with fertility and any creature which proved itself in this department became a symbol of good fortune to us. This belief has revealed itself in many mysterious ways and is probably why we still like to say ‘white rabbit’ or ‘rabbit, rabbit, rabbit’ before we say anything else on the first day of each month.

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