Rab­bits have been with us for cen­turies but num­bers are fall­ing. Con­ser­va­tion­ists don’t usu­ally help non-na­tive an­i­mals, but in this case they need to make an ex­cep­tion.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Rabbits - By Pa­trick Barkham

The grass is short and yel­low, the ground desert-dry, and the grey soil det­o­nates into dust when you scuff it. The flat ter­rain of Nor­folk’s East Wretham Heath is hot by day, cold at night, and looks much the same in all four sea­sons. Wel­come to the Brecks – an arid, sandy land­scape, pe­cu­liar to parts of Nor­folk and Suf­folk, that is more like the steppe of Kaza­khstan or Rus­sia than the rest of low­land Eng­land.

It may look des­o­late, but bend down and this prairie is full of life. The warm, tightly grazed sward is packed with rare plants that re­quire warm bare ground to sur­vive, from spring and fin­gered speed­well to – fab­u­lously named – pros­trate peren­nial knawel. There are warmth-lov­ing in­ver­te­brates, such as the worm­wood moon­shiner bee­tle and dingy skip­per butterfly. And it’s a haven for big­ger, more her­alded crea­tures: adders, com­mon lizards, sky­larks, wood­larks and night­jars.

All these plants and an­i­mals are here be­cause of one key­stone species, an ecosys­tem en­gi­neer like no other, a charis­matic crea­ture and a su­perb con­ser­va­tion tool that is ar­guably more im­por­tant than any other Bri­tish an­i­mal in pre­serv­ing a range of land­scapes, from the South Downs to the Cotswold grass­lands.

Phoebe Miles, a Nat­u­ral Eng­land ecol­o­gist and lead ad­vi­sor on the Shift­ing Sands project to save en­dan­gered Breck­land heaths, is the first to spot one. “There!” she shouts – a young rab­bit comes bounc­ing over the short grass­land, its cot­ton tail flash­ing.

My heart re­fuses to flut­ter at the sight of a bunny. But per­haps it should. For num­bers of wild rab­bits in Bri­tain are plum­met­ing. The Mam­mal So­ci­ety’s 2018 pop­u­la­tion sur­vey re­ports that the longquoted Bri­tish fig­ure of 36 mil­lion rab­bits is an over­es­ti­mate. The UK’s Breed­ing Bird Sur­vey, run by the BTO, RSPB and Joint Na­ture Con­ser­va­tion Com­mit­tee (JNCC), and which since 1995 has also mon­i­tored mam­mals, in­ferred a pop­u­la­tion de­crease of 48 per cent be­tween 1995 and 2012.

Hu­man threats

This un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated, non-na­tive mam­mal – the Euro­pean rab­bit is orig­i­nally from Spain, Por­tu­gal, France and north-west Africa – is fac­ing a per­fect storm of threats. They in­clude the con­tin­ued per­cep­tion that the rab­bit is an un­re­con­structed pest in the wild; a surge in preda­tor pop­u­la­tions; and not one but three fa­tal dis­eases, all in­tro­duced by hu­mans in­tent on wip­ing out this ‘ver­min’.

As rab­bit num­bers fall, so pre­cious sem­i­nat­u­ral ecosys­tems such as East Anglia’s Brecks are threat­ened. “We’re sit­ting on an ex­tinc­tion time-bomb here,” says Miles bluntly. “The rab­bits are our best bet for sav­ing Breck­land heaths. The fu­ture of the Brecks de­pend on it.”

Rab­bits were prob­a­bly first brought to the Bri­tish Isles by the Ro­mans, but are likely to have dis­ap­peared again be­fore be­ing rein­tro­duced in the 12th cen­tury, fol­low­ing the Nor­man con­quest. They were soon farmed in huge num­bers. Iron­i­cally, how­ever, it was the rise of the game­keeper that helped wild rab­bits to spread as pop­u­la­tions of preda­tors – from stoats to buz­zards – were dec­i­mated. So did agri­cul­ture, with the En­clo­sures bring­ing hedges for cover and win­ter crops for food.

The growth of un­cul­ti­vated land dur­ing the agri­cul­tural de­pres­sion of the early 20th cen­tury fur­ther en­cour­aged the wild rab­bit pop­u­la­tion, which grew to an es­ti­mated 100 mil­lion. Farm­ers, gar­den­ers and all kinds

This un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated, non-na­tive mam­mal, the Euro­pean rab­bit, is fac­ing a per­fect storm of threats.

of grow­ers, un­der­stand­ably, railed against this ‘pest’ and a new law on the eve of World War Two made it an of­fence to fail to con­trol rab­bit pop­u­la­tions. But the in­ten­tional in­tro­duc­tion of myx­o­mato­sis in 1953 was dev­as­tat­ing: within a few years, 99.9 per cent of the rab­bit pop­u­la­tion had van­ished.

“The rab­bit is unique,” says Diana Bell, a bi­ol­o­gist who has de­voted much of her ca­reer to study­ing the an­i­mals. “It’s a nurs­ery pin-up. It’s a pet. We use it in lab­o­ra­tory re­search. It’s eaten as meat but its role as a con­ser­va­tion ecosys­tem man­ager is ne­glected. There's no other species that plays that range of roles in our lives, and that’s in­ter­est­ing.”

Myx­o­mato­sis is still killing rab­bits to­day. Ac­cord­ing to Bell, who stud­ies the colonies that bounce around the cam­pus out­side her of­fice at the Univer­sity of East Anglia, be­tween 60 and 100 per cent of young rab­bits are killed when the sea­sonal wave of the dis­ease strikes, usu­ally soon af­ter mid­sum­mer.

But sur­vivors be­come im­mune, and so the rab­bit pop­u­la­tion steadily re­cov­ered af­ter the 1970s. To­day, it should be boom­ing: cli­mate change can help rab­bits breed all year round, while the con­stantly cropped and nu­tri­ent-en­riched fields of mod­ern farm­ing pro­vide non-stop food. In­stead, the species’

pop­u­la­tion has fallen. A dis­ease called rab­bit haem­or­rhagic dis­ease, or RHD1, was tri­alled in Aus­tralia as another con­trol agent but ‘es­caped’ into the wider en­vi­ron­ment, and erupted in do­mes­tic rab­bits in Ger­many in the 1990s that had been im­ported from China. It soon reached Bri­tain, where it caused rab­bit pop­u­la­tions to dip sig­nif­i­cantly in the 1990s.

“If you take out the rab­bit in some lo­ca­tions, the ecosys­tems col­lapse,” says Bell. “The species is a ma­jor food source in many places. On our chalk grass­lands, such as the South Downs, the rab­bit is key to main­tain­ing the short sward re­quired by but­ter­flies, cer­tain rarer plants and other in­ver­te­brates.”

What’s hap­pened on the Breck­land heaths is par­tic­u­larly trou­bling, as Miles shows me. The im­pact of the loss of rab­bits on East Wretham Heath is stark. In one ‘com­part­ment’ on one side of the A-road that cuts through the na­ture re­serve, the rab­bit pop­u­la­tion has de­fied dis­ease, and the an­cient semi-nat­u­ral heath is grassy and open, with mole­hills and a plethora of small plants and pretty lichens. (Two species of lichen have gone ex­tinct, glob­ally, af­ter be­ing lost from the Brecks in re­cent decades.)

On the other side of the road, how­ever, the grass is tall and rank, and full of ro­bust, nitro­gen-lov­ing plants such as cock’s-foot grass, rose­bay wil­lowherb and net­tles. “These bully boys are pro­moted where there are fewer rab­bits be­cause they are not eat­ing them and dis­turb­ing them,” says Miles.

Prob­lems in the field

There are a few rab­bits on this taller-veg­e­tated side, but once the pop­u­la­tion falls be­low a cer­tain level in a land­scape, it ap­pears that the rab­bits rarely re­turn in num­ber. The grasses take over, the turf thick­ens and rab­bits then strug­gle to dig new bur­rows. Long grass is also a land­scape of fear for rab­bits, be­cause they can’t see the foxes, stoats and other preda­tors that can take them by sur­prise.

The unique Breck­land heaths are threat­ened by what Miles calls a “triple whammy”. Chang­ing land use, with the de­cline of sheep and cat­tle graz­ing and a rise in lu­cra­tive potato and pig farm­ing, has seen a loss of grass­land. Se­condly, this has co­in­cided with in­creased fer­tiliser use, road-traf­fic emis­sions and other air­borne pol­lu­tion to cause a huge rise in nu­tri­ents fall­ing on soils, and once the poor soils of the Brecks be­come en­riched, then com­mon, dom­i­neer­ing and fast-grow­ing plant species smother the frag­ile rarer ones. Fi­nally, there’s the loss of rab­bit graz­ing.

“Rab­bits its are so much more im­por­tant than they y ever were,” says Miles. “We can mow heaths, aths, we can pull up scrub, but it’s all ex­tremely tremely ex­pen­sive and it’s not self-sus­tain­ing. ain­ing. It re­quires ma­chines and hu­mans and gra­ziers, all of which must be paid to o do it.” More re­al­is­tic in fi­nan­cially ly strait­ened times is free 24/7 grass-cut­ting. ss-cut­ting. “Rab­bits are so im­por­tant nt to the Brecks. They are our big­gest est con­ser­va­tion tool here,” says Miles. es. “En­sur­ing rab­bits

con­tinue in the Brecks is to en­sure that the Brecks con­tinue to ex­ist.”

Miles is over­see­ing Shift­ing Sands, one of 19 schemes in the £4.6m Her­itage Lot­tery­funded Back from the Brink project. It is bring­ing to­gether con­ser­va­tion char­i­ties and pri­vate landown­ers on 17 sites in the Brecks to re­vive some of this area’s key species, in­clud­ing pros­trate peren­nial knawel, worm­wood moon­shiner – and rab­bits.

Zosia Ladds, key­stone species of­fi­cer for the Shift­ing Sands project, ex­plains how the long-grassed part of East Wretham Heath is one of five sites des­ig­nated for rab­bit re­cov­ery. Work gets un­der­way this au­tumn. Based on man­age­ment prin­ci­ples es­tab­lished by Bell’s work, rank grasses will first be mown short, so the rab­bits can eas­ily graze and see preda­tors.

Rab­bits live in war­rens where the dom­i­nant fe­male sup­presses the breed­ing of sub­or­di­nate fe­males by deny­ing them ac­cess to breed­ing sites, so if there are good sites nearby for new war­rens, the lower-rank­ing fe­males are more likely to move out and the pop­u­la­tion will ex­pand. Ladds will over­see the strip­ping of turf so rab­bits can bet­ter bur­row into the ground. Rab­bits of­ten dig war­rens where there has al­ready been soil dis­tur­bance, par­tic­u­larly mole­hills (the mole is another un­sung hero in the Brecks). The turf will be piled into banks and brash piles will be added to pro­vide preda­tor cover.

For farm­ers and al­lot­ment own­ers, the rab­bit is still a dam­ag­ing pest. What do they make of this rab­bit re­vival? “Part of the project is to make sure we’re not dam­ag­ing ad­ja­cent crop­land,” says Ladds, so Shift­ing Sands will erect rab­bit-proof fencing. Ladds hasn’t met any op­po­si­tion from the farm­ers they are work­ing with. “A lot of farm­ers in the Brecks are in­ter­ested in help­ing with con­ser­va­tion be­cause they’ve seen the loss of rab­bits and they are in­volved in stone curlew con­ser­va­tion.”

But, as Ladds and Miles are keen to stress, this project is not about re­viv­ing rab­bits ev­ery­where. “In some places they are a pest,” says Miles. “We don’t want them in our crop­land and al­lot­ments, but we do want self­sus­tain­ing pop­u­la­tions on na­ture re­serves and SSSIs, our semi-nat­u­ral habi­tats, down­land and heath­land.”

The stakes are high. Pros­trate peren­nial knawel “will be ex­tinct within five years if we don’t act now, and the Breck­land worm­wood will fol­low in a decade,” pre­dicts Miles. Shift­ing Sands should help boost pop­u­la­tions but there is no guar­an­tee of suc­cess with the spec­tre of fur­ther dis­ease.

Lat­est threat

The lat­est blow to rab­bits came in 2010, when a dis­ease called RHD2 was re­ported in France and then in the UK. “RHD2 is the real mon­ster on the block,” says Bell. It is the worst dis­ease yet, be­cause it is zoonotic: it can jump species. “RHD2 is killing brown and moun­tain hares. Hares are al­ready in big trou­ble. Imag­ine the sit­u­a­tion where we lost those species, which are im­por­tant prey items for a range of preda­tors.”

“Beatrix Pot­ter would be turn­ing in her grave in all hon­esty,” sighs Bell. “The rab­bits are up against it.” In Bri­tain, how­ever, there are signs we are learn­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate the ser­vices to other wildlife that this species pro­vides. Aca­demics are no­to­ri­ously re­luc­tant to get sen­ti­men­tal about the sub­jects of their study, but Bell is happy to ad­mit ad­mir­ing more than just the sci­en­tific and eco­log­i­cal qual­i­ties of this un­der­es­ti­mated mam­mal.

Bell had a house rab­bit for years. “He’d come and meet me at the door when I got home and he’d sit on the arm of my chair when I watched TV,” she re­calls. “Rab­bits are such in­tel­li­gent, amaz­ing an­i­mals.”

Long grass is a land­scape of fear for rab­bits – they can’t see the preda­tors that can take them by sur­prise.

Above: a rab­bit war­ren in a typ­i­cal Breck­land lo­ca­tion with short grass. Rab­bits of­ten dig where there has al­ready been a soil dis­tur­bance.

Clock­wise from left: rab­bits don’t like build­ing war­rens in fields with tall grass as it’s more dif­fi­cult for bur­row­ing and harder to spot preda­tors; a fam­ily group of rab­bits – de­spite their rep­u­ta­tion for nu­mer­ous off­spring, rab­bit num­bers are fall­ing; a green rab­bit icon in­di­cates a Breck­land trail; a stoat proves that it re­mains one of the main preda­tors.

Above: rab­bit­proof fencing is be­ing used to pro­tect farm­land in the Brecks. Left: Zosia Ladds ( right) and Phoebe Miles are over­see­ing the Shift­ing Sands project and help­ing to pro­tect rab­bit habi­tats.

Bi­ol­o­gist st Diana Bell cham­pi­ons mpi­ons the many ny roles of Bri­tish sh rab­bits.

Above: two rab­bits chomp on short grass. Rab­bits pro­vide free 24/7 grass-cut­ting, de­spite be­ing squeezed out by mod­ern farm­ing.

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