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.
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.
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.
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.