How wild rabbits are conquering the urban sprawl
An incredible natural revolution is taking place in Europe – and yet most people don’t realise it’s happening. Hordes of wild rabbits are taking over the cities, becoming the new rulers of the urban underground
The location could be better. And at first glance the size is nothing to write home about. Plonked slap bang in the middle of two four-lane roads and in the shadow of three large tower blocks, the new build offers just 58 square metres of living space. In spite of this, the new residents seem to be settling in well. For the colony of 20 wild rabbits, the traffic island in the city centre offers the perfect urban lifestyle. Like millions of their fellow species members they also prefer the bright lights of the city over the peace and quiet of the countryside. But why? What is drawing these streetwise bunnies to Europe’s busy cities?
ONE-BEDROOM FLAT INSTEAD OF A BIG FAMILY HOME
Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Nobody knows exactly how many wild rabbits have moved from the country to the city in recent years. But in traffic islands, car parks, gardens, cemeteries and wasteland – the number of wild rabbits in some of Europe’s largest metropolises is skyrocketing. The deep tunnels and living quarters of their underground constructions extend for dozens of metres across the cities (see diagram over the page). “The animals have learnt that they can enjoy good living conditions in urban areas,” explains wildlife expert Andreas Kinser. Food supplies are very reliable, meaning the rabbits can feast on a range of nutrition, including food waste and rubbish, in contrast to the monotonous monoculture on offer in the countryside.
Modern farming has also led to a reduction in the number of hedges where rabbits can hide from their predators. No such problem in the city, where tower blocks and electricity masts offer protection from birds of prey. Conditions underfoot, meanwhile, are ideal: the soil is noticeably looser – perfect for digging their underground living systems. Research from biologists at the University of Frankfurt also made a fascinating observation: they discovered that wild urban rabbits, like humans, tend to live in small groups or even in the bunny equivalent of a studio apartment, while rural rabbits form large family groups with up to 50 members.
How many wild rabbits have conquered our big cities is unclear. However, analysis suggests the rabbit population is in decline in many rural parts of Europe – but on the rise in urban areas. Bunnies are masters of invasion, something already proven in Australia. Around 150 years ago two dozen European rabbits were released by settlers in Victoria. Today that number has grown to 300 million – outnumbering humans by ten to one.