Save the rabbit

In the UK, rabbit numbers fell by 43% between 2008 and 2018, with the latest surveys showing no sign that the decline is slowing. The cause is RHDV2, rabbit  haemorrhagic disease virus type 2.  

We are inclined to think of the rabbit as quintessentially English, a native species that is part and parcel of our mythology as well as our natural history. But the European rabbit is not native to the UK; it was probably brought here by the Normans in the middle of the 11th century as livestock, intensively farmed for its meat right up into the 18th century.

[1] Rabbits keep coarse grasses under control allowing more delicate species like the bee orchid [2] to be established.

Once rabbits had escaped from their warreners and established themselves in our countryside, they became a keystone species: habitat creators. Rabbits are selective grazers. They keep the growth of vigorous grasses in check, creating close cropped grassland for rarer and more delicate wildflowers and invertebrates.

The importance of the rabbit’s role as an ecosystem engineer was not really understood until the deliberate introduction in the 1950s of myxomatosis , which reduced their population by 99%, and the closely grazed dry grassland they had created and its flora and fauna almost vanished. The large blue butterfly became extinct in Britain in the1970s for lack of close cropped rabbit-grazed upland, where wild thyme grows, and a certain species of ant flourishes, both essential parts of the large blue’s insanely complicated life cycle.

[3] A large blue butterfly feeding on wild thyme. [4] RHDV2 attacks rabbit kits.

Like myxomatosis, RHDV2 has become endemic. The existence of two endemic viruses, each with high mortality rates and each infecting the rabbits at different life-stages (RHDV2 attacks the kits while myxomatosis infects the adults) is having disastrous consequences. The scientists who are studying the effects of RHDV2 believe that rabbit numbers will never recover to their previous levels.

In its native Spain, the rabbit is already considered an endangered species and globally it is classified as Near Threatened. Here in the UK, though, rabbits have no legal protection; in fact landowners are required to control rabbit numbers to prevent damage to a neighbour’s land, and can be prosecuted for failing to do so.

We need to save our rabbits. They need legal protection and, if their numbers are to recover, they need help to stay safe from predators in the wild. In the reserve we have piled up the brash and trimmings from our work in The Arboretum to make safe places and habitat for our wildlife, including rabbits. You could do the same in your garden.

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